Contrary to the surge in hunting and fishing during the coronavirus pandemic, Minnesota's wildlife conservation groups are retrenching to cope with a fundraising crisis.

The National Wild Turkey Federation laid off 51 employees this week as a consequence of COVID-19. Staff cuts have hit other groups to a lesser degree, and they're all scrambling to replace revenue lost in the mass cancellations of spring membership banquets. For charities devoted to outdoor causes, those gatherings provide a mother lode of revenue.

"We're talking millions of dollars that are not being raised,'' said Tom Glines, director of development in the Upper Midwest for the turkey federation. "We're trying to control costs everywhere so we can keep the lights on and the doors open.''

Turkey hunting in Minnesota was up 30% this year, but Glines said restrictions against traditional group fundraising events wiped out the source of 60% to 75% of the federation's income. Across the country, COVID-19 restrictions canceled half of its spring banquets.

"Without those group functions it really ties our hands,'' he said.

Moreover, Glines and other conservation group leaders say the bleeding will continue until health officials deem it safe again for people to gather inside by the hundreds.

"At this point … we do not see the light at the end of the tunnel,'' Glines said.

Kyle Momsen, regional director in Alexandria, Minn., for Ducks Unlimited (DU), said the damage to conservation groups was immediate because most live hand to mouth. Attempts to replace the banquets with various online events held via Zoom, Facebook and other platforms have fallen short.

"We're not sitting on some big endowment,'' Momsen said. "We spend all of our money as it comes in.''

Online auctions

Momsen said certain Minnesota DU chapters have experimented with live online auctions in which participants bid using the chat box on their computer screens. There's been other virtual gatherings, too, like this week's 34th annual "banquet'' on Zoom, hosted by Buffalo Ducks Unlimited. Adults paid $60, and the amount of money that would normally go for a meal was used to buy door prizes that were given away.

Momsen said a few of DU's online events have been very successful, but others have been "hit or miss." Like other traditional 501(c)(3) conservation groups, membership at DU is skewed toward generations of people who aren't computer-savvy.

"Our crowd is not conditioned to do stuff online for charity,'' Momsen said.

At DU, 60% to 70 % of Minnesota membership banquets take place in the spring. To adjust to this year's collapse, the organization cut salaries and furloughed other staff. In some places, DU's corporate partners have helped. First National Bank of Omaha, DU's credit card affiliate, is providing $250,000 worth of auction items.

"We lost so much money this spring … but we're very proud we have not had to cancel any [habitat] projects slated for this year,'' Momsen said.

A typical membership banquet provides three revenue sources: admission tickets that include an annual membership fee, raffles and auctions (live or silent). It's normal for a participant to drop $180 to $200 over the course of a night. Auction items and raffle prizes are normally donated.

Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said a big stumbling block in staging online gatherings is that raffles are forbidden by the Minnesota Gambling Control Board when tickets are bought with credit cards. More than 25 other states have a similar law.

"The inability to sell raffle tickets with a credit card online makes it difficult to come up with a robust fundraiser,'' Engwall said.

'Cautiously optimistic'

MDHA, a group of about 18,000 deer hunters that operates with a yearly budget of $3 million to $5 million, postponed 40% of its membership banquets this spring. Like other wildlife conservation groups, the deer hunters' group took advantage of a federal program under the CARES Act that provided forgivable loans for employers to cover payroll for several months.

But now Engwall is preparing a mailing to MDHA's target audience to ask for donations and membership renewals.

"Do I think we'll be able to make all that money back? No, I don't,'' he said. "But we're cautiously optimistic we can be creative with outdoor events and different things.''

To that end, the Bluff Country Chapter of the group plans to hold an indoor-outdoor banquet Aug. 22 at Witoka Dance Hall outside of Winona. Perry Fitch, an MDHA state director, said a large outdoor tent will help provide enough room to safely space attendees. Pre-made meals will be served directly to participants, and raffle tickets will be available for cash.

At Pheasants Forever (PF), leaders have trimmed the national payroll by accepting a few early retirements and cutting a small number of jobs. Spokesman Jared Wiklund, said PF will launch a national online auction in July. Items include a Trampled by Turtles ticket package with a chance to meet lead singer Dave Simonett, a PF member.

Wiklund said the biggest concern at PF is that a second wave of COVID-19 could spoil spring banquets in 2021 along with PF's national Pheasant Fest convention, normally held in February.