In the Field: Cooperative Beginnings

by Anna Mitterling, Wildlife Cooperative Coordinator
The most common question I get asked in my position is – How do I start a cooperative? There are many ways to go about starting up a cooperative. Of over 80 wildlife cooperatives in Michigan, each was started in a slightly different way. What works for one group, may not work for another. What one prospective cooperative leader may be excited about, may not excite another leader, and what the primary focus of one individual may not be of interest to his neighbors.Cooperatives are primarily a social balance of sorts. They are a give-take situation amongst a group of people.  This is why having shared key values is vital to the success of the cooperative. Key values can be as simple as being a hunter. Maybe it is to improve hunting or improving habitat. It is important that the key value, or primary focus, of the cooperative, be rather general. This allows for a broad spectrum of membership and involvement.
If you are thinking of starting a cooperative, your first step is to really think about what the primary focus could be of the cooperative. Think about what you want to create with your neighbors. Keep in mind that they may have different passions, goals, etc., than you. Think about how you can engage different ideas from your neighbors. If your primary focus is to improve deer hunting in your area, think about what that means for you. For many guys, it is improving the sex ratio, age structure, and habitat. These are also areas that can cause a divide between hunters. How can you find common ground to focus on?
Once you have thought through your goals and what you would like to see, talk to some of your neighbors you are closest to. Your goal needs to be to understand where your neighbors are at. Share in minimal detail why you want to start an organized cooperative. Then ask them what they think and what their goals are. It is really important to listen rather than talk at this point. Even if they are in disagreement with where you are at, this doesn’t mean they won’t provide some solid support to your cooperative. Use these opportunities to find out where your neighbors are at. After listening to the thoughts of your neighbors, think about where the commonalities and differences are.
Some of the most successful cooperatives started out with some strong clashes in opinions. The resolution of these conflicts was based on coming back to understanding what the primary focus was.  There had to be agreement that all parties wanted better deer hunting in the cooperative, and members had to come to a place of accepting that “better hunting” was different to each person.
The unique thing about cooperatives is that they bring together private landowners who have every right to make their own management decisions that fit within the legal boundaries. Cooperatives maintain individual rights and opinions. They also have the ability to facilitate changes in opinions and behaviors. Just be warned that some of the changes may be yours.
So to answer the question, “How do I start a cooperative?” I suggest you go talk to your neighbors, and identify who is going to be an invested neighbor who can help mold and shape the cooperative.  Ask them about how they feel about their current hunting experiences. Ask them what they would like to see changed. Ask them what benefit they see in having a community of hunters talking about harvest and habitat. Once you have talked to several neighbors, hold a meeting where you can all talk about goals and guidelines for the cooperative. If there seems to be a promising fit, and agreement of what the primary focus of the group is – great! Your next step is to outreach to bring in more people and formalize the cooperative goals and guidelines.
Interested in learning more or want some help walking through these beginning stages? Help is available to you. Feel free to call 517-346-6454 or email me directly.

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