Stories From Afield • Updated Fri, Oct 6, 2023
“I just think outdoor recreation defines who I am.” Dr. Mike Brasher is a conservationist and avid hunter who has spent his life at the intersection of waterfowling and science. Growing up in North Central Mississippi, he developed a deep appreciation for the outdoors and the wild world of waterfowl. Now, as Senior Waterfowl Scientist at Ducks Unlimited, Dr. Brasher helps untangle the complex web of waterfowl and wetlands data to inform environmental policy across North America.
Courtesy of Ed Wall.
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Dr. Mike Brasher grew up amongst the wetlands of North Central Mississippi. He remembers seeing his father returning from morning hunts on the local flood control reservoirs, toting his limit of beautifully plumed ducks of assorted species. These days sparked a profound childhood interest in the world of waterfowl and the art of duck hunting, rooted in an appreciation for wetlands. “It made me realize that the habitat holds so much power,” Brasher recounts.
“You have to put yourself out in the wetlands to see those birds, let alone bring one to hand. The marsh was always somewhat of a magical, mysterious place in my eyes."
Dr. Brasher’s childhood was closely intertwined with the waterfowl world. When he was too young to shoot or hunt yet, he would go in the blind with his father and observe. In watching the birds work and seeing how the hunt would unfold, Brasher learned the ways of waterfowl.
Dr. Brasher’s introduction to waterfowl conservation came serendipitously through none other than Ducks Unlimited. Brasher remembers how his father served as the chairman of the local DU chapter in Bruce, Mississippi. “I have fond memories of attending Ducks Unlimited banquets with my dad as a kid,” he says. “These events really helped to foster a sense of community around the sport.”
While Dr. Brasher was fortunate to grow up with pretty good duck hunting in his backyard, he also knew from a young age that things in the waterfowl world were somewhat tenuous. “As the duck population declined in the 1980s, we actually stopped duck hunting for a few years,” he remembers. "In rural Mississippi, there's not a whole lot to do but to be outside. And so I fished, and I hunted.” It wasn't until his high school years in the late 80s and early 90s that Dr. Brasher asked his father to go duck hunting again.
During this time period of reinvigorated interest in waterfowl and more time in the marsh, Dr. Brasher started thinking about his future. With college on the horizon and a burgeoning passion for duck hunting and conservation, he experienced a pivotal moment in pushing him to pursue a career in waterfowl and wetlands conservation:
"My father and I are standing there, each against our tree in an old Cypress break. And all of a sudden, in comes this lone drake mallard with beautifully orange feet. The sun was bright on our backs, shining on that plumage. Then we dropped him. There was something magical about that experience. These are remarkable animals, I remember saying to myself. They're beautiful, they're charismatic, they attract the attention of millions of people, and I think I'm going to look into career options there.”
Dr. Brasher applied to and was accepted by Mississippi State University, where he connected with Dr. Rick Kaminski, a renowned waterfowl professor, who served as his undergraduate advisor. This connection proved invaluable in shaping Dr. Brasher's career. Under expert tutelage, he gained a broad understanding of North American waterfowl ecology and conservation. He spent summers working as a technician for Delta Waterfowl, Mississippi State University, and California Waterfowl—conducting research in waterfowl meccas like the Prairie Pothole Region, Lower Mississippi Valley, and California Central Valley. Dr. Brasher went on to earn his Master's Degree at Mississippi State, where he explored the sociobiology of male mallards, and his Ph.D. at The Ohio State University studying waterfowl use of restored wetlands during the non-breeding period. “These experiences gave me the tools to adopt a holistic approach to studying waterfowl populations, even at very large scales,” he notes.
Dr. Brasher's expertise lies in understanding waterfowl populations and habitats. He and his team at DU strive to grow and sustain waterfowl populations at abundant levels. Through scientific investigation and data-driven research, they inform effective conservation policies at an international scale.
Leveraging science at such a large scale entails some distinct categorization of subpopulations to implement locally effective policies. Dr. Brasher underscores the importance of context and species specificity for waterfowl conservation. “Species have different considerations due to their unique behaviors,” he explains. “And those differences – whether migration patterns, landscapes, or environmental threats — have to be factored into our planning and conservation efforts.”
The highly migratory nature of many waterfowl species distinguishes their population dynamics as particularly complex. Dr. Brasher highlights how the extensive distances covered by waterfowl during their annual migrations link disparate communities through shared management responsibilities. “It necessitates collaboration and interaction among conservationists, research communities, and hunters across many different regions and even countries,” states Brasher. DU’s network helps spearhead this type of concerted conservation effort, championing collaboration between hunters, scientists, and policy makers.
In one of their ongoing projects, Ducks Unlimited partners with landowners to develop mutually beneficial strategies for habitat management. Through this program, many landowners have made real headway in enhancing the productivity of their land to benefit waterfowl. “We often talk with agricultural landowners about the benefits of restoring historical conditions to improve the resilience of their farming operations,” Dr. Brasher explains. “While not all landowners can manage land exclusively for wildlife, they can often find ways to incorporate practices that benefit both their livelihoods and waterfowl populations.” DU’s recommended landowner practices aim to improve soil health, increase water-holding capacity, enhance farm profitability, and create habitats that support waterfowl populations. Through collaboration, landowners and conservationists can identify practices supporting agricultural productivity and waterfowl habitat conservation.
"Landowners are absolutely crucial because we can't conserve and sustain continental waterfowl populations without them. That's where Ducks Unlimited comes in—partnering with landowners to try and develop mutually beneficial practices for waterfowl and farmers. They benefit the landowner for one reason, and, in turn, benefit waterfowl. It doesn't mean it's a perfect waterfowl habitat, but it's better than what was there.”
Dr. Brasher also emphasizes the importance of community involvement from guides and outfitters in waterfowl conservation. “Guides, outfitters, and hunters each play a significant role in supporting and promoting conservation efforts,” says Brasher. “What they do is important because they help grow the sport and create new conservation advocates.” Guides have a unique opportunity to influence the perceptions of numerous hunters, promoting good ethics and conservation-minded practices. Guides can have a tremendous impact by consistently reinforcing the message of respect for the resource and advocating for conservation. This can only be good for business.
“We hunters are the front lines. It's not our federal and state management agencies, or even Ducks Unlimited; it’s individual hunters. We are the ones that are fueling conservation through license sales, donations, service, and advocacy. Guides have a tremendous opportunity and a responsibility to convey a message of respect for the resource. That includes before, during, and after the hunt.”
As with Dr. Brasher’s line of work, conservation and recreation are not separate things but interconnected facets of his life. He finds solace and inspiration in the beauty of nature when engaging in recreational pursuits, detaching himself from the demands of everyday life. However, even in these moments of tranquility, his mind drifts to ways of improving land management and enhancing conservation efforts. Time afield only emphasizes the importance of his work at Ducks Unlimited and their efforts to offset the pressures of ongoing wetland habitat destruction.
“Waterfowl habitats continue to face more threats now than anytime in our history. Those threats are accelerating in some cases, and there's always more on the horizon. Many forms of development affect waterfowl or other migratory birds, and for that reason Ducks Unlimited and a lot of others are recognizing that we have to really grow the support base for conservation.”
Dr. Brasher’s words highlight the growing need to expand the support base for waterfowl conservation. While hunters have traditionally formed the heart of conservation efforts, he emphasizes the importance of using innovative projects and targeted communications to engage other stakeholders such as municipalities, causes, and various user groups. He and the team at Ducks Unlimited aim to increase collaboration in protecting natural resources. Conservation starts and ends with a community that cares—a community that people like Dr. Brasher represent, bring together, and continue to inspire.
To follow Dr. Mike Brasher’s conservation journey and get involved yourself, check out Ducks Unlimited.
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