For decades, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation has waged policy battles on behalf of the state’s outdoorsmen, and for the past 20 years Mike Butler has been the general leading the charge.
“It’s something I’m very passionate about,” says Butler, who joined the TWF in 1996 and has served as CEO since 2002.
“Sometimes our hunters and fishermen and other outdoorsmen feel like they don’t have a say regarding public policy. We’re their voice.”
Unlike the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Wildlife Federation is not under the control of the state legislature or other political factions.
“We’re completely independent,” Butler says. “We answer to the people, not to the politicians.”
One example of the TWF’s legislative clout is the passage of the Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment to the state constitution. Despite years of special-interest efforts to block it, Butler’s persistence finally got the issue on a state-wide referendum, where it passed overwhelmingly.
Another example: a few years ago, the TWF challenged the Corps of Engineers’ attempt to ban tailwater fishing below Corps dams. Butler organized grassroots opposition to the ban and secured the support of then-Senator Lamar Alexander. The Corps relented and allowed the tailwaters to remain open to the public.
The TWF partnered with the TWRA and other wildlife organizations in a successful Tennessee Elk Restoration Project and organized and oversees the Hunters for the Hungry program that has provided over a million meals of venison to the state’s needy.
More recently it helped secure federal grants to battle invasive Asian Carp that threaten the state’s fisheries, and is spearheading an anti-litter Tennessee Clean Campaign.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” Butler says, “and there are more challenges ahead.”
The non-profit TWF, which was founded in 1946 as the Tennessee Conservation League, is headquartered in Nashville and funded entirely by private donations and grants. Oversight is provided by a 15-member board of directors and a 17-person advisory board whose members include celebrity fisherman Bill Dance and former UT football coach/AD Phillip Fulmer.
“We have a lot of dedicated people,” says Butler, a native of Jackson, Tennessee, who resides in Williamson County.
A graduate of UT, Butler earned his Master’s degree in Fish & Wildlife Management at Montana State University. After graduation, he served as an intern in Washington with The Wildlife Society and spent a summer in Manitoba doing waterfowl research.
Then he “came home” to join the Wildlife Federation.
Butler says the biggest challenge facing the TWF is basic but daunting: preserving the outdoors for outdoorsmen.
“Our state’s population is growing rapidly,” he says. “We must make sure our land, wildlife and natural resources are protected and managed to benefit hunters and fishermen and others who enjoy the outdoors. Once its lost, it’s probably lost forever. Our mission is to make sure that doesn’t happen.”