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The woods aren't just for hunters and tree huggers anymore.

In Minnesota, Wisconsin and across the United States, the activity dubbed "watching wildlife" is on the rise.

Women with children and aging baby boomers appear to be leading the wildlife-watching trend, a potential economic boon that more businesses and communities are looking to capitalize on.

"People want to get out and see nature," said Jim Mallman, president of Watchable Wildlife Inc., a Minnesota-based nonprofit.

This simple desire has made wildlife watching the fastest-growing leisure activity in the United States and a powerful economic development tool, according to state officials and Mallman's group, which works with federal and state agencies across the country to preserve and promote woods, waters and wildlife.

Who qualifies as a wildlife watcher? The term refers to people whose primary purpose in going outdoors is to observe, photograph or feed birds, fish and other animals.

Increasingly, more people are doing it, according to state and federal surveys. And that, in turn, is fueling nature-based tourism and festivals that some communities see as an opportunity to grow without adding buildings.

More than $500 million is spent in Minnesota and more than $400 million in Wisconsin annually on wildlife watching, according to the latest survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mallman credits single-parent families headed by women for much of the trend. Such women want to involve their children in outdoor activities, but they are less likely than men to favor hunting and fishing.

"More than anything, they are the driving force," he said.

The 32,000-acre Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wis., is considered among the top 10 birding destinations in the Midwest, according to state officials. Its bald eagles, loons, sandhill cranes, swans and assortment of ducks help draw more than 120,000 visitors annually -- 42 percent of them from out of state -- and bring an estimated $2.4 million to the region.

In New York State, the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge in Seneca Falls along the Thruway attracts more than 130,000 visitors each year. The refuge reports that virtually every species of shorebird that migrates through central New York is recorded at locations there.

There are roughly 46 million birders in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, which found that the hobby accounted for $32 billion in retail sales nationwide in 2001.

Birders and other wildlife watchers don't wear blaze orange and usually aren't noticeable in the field, but they stand out at the bed-and-breakfasts, cafes or antique stores where they spend money.

That was clear last winter during the influx of great gray owls to northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin.

"We had people from Chicago, Kansas, Texas and all over the United States come for the owls," said Lisa Hobbie, manager of the Best Western Northwoods Lodge in Siren, Wis. "And they need someplace to sleep, eat and get gas."

The owls flew down from Canada in search for food and likely won't return next winter, but the trail and Crex Meadows create steady business.

"It's definitely made an impact. They are spending a lot of money to see what is right in our backyard and what we have taken for granted," Hobbie said.

Colleges have noticed and are educating a wide range of professionals, including those in the tourism industry.

About 18 months ago, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls began offering graduate certificates in Wildlife Recreation and Nature Tourism. The program will soon be expanded into a master's program in Sustainable Community Development.

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