Want to conserve big carnivores? Help locals work together.

ALISTAIR BATH: Group facilitation in action!

Feature | by Gregory Beatty

When pro-conservation and pro-development forces clash, the rhetoric can get pretty heated. The stakes, after all, are high. And both sides, in most instances, have valid arguments, either for habitat conservation and endangered plant and animal species, or the general desire of individuals and communities to improve their economic prospects.

Alistair Bath, a geography professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, knows the type of tensions that can arise over ecological issues. For the past two decades he’s worked on numerous research projects around the world focussed on large carnivores.

Childhood Spark

“My mom says when I was very young I heard wolves howl in Algonquin Provincial Park and I told her I’d be studying wolves when I grew up,” says Bath. “I don’t remember that, but I do remember the experience of hearing wolves for the first time in Algonquin.”

Bath’s interest was further piqued as an undergrad at Wilfred Laurier University.

“I had a really good resource management professor, and started to get interested in this wildlife-human connection. In the mid-1980s, there was a wolf control program in northern B.C. I was curious to see if the program was justified, and what different groups thought about it.”

Bath traveled to B.C., where he met with ranchers, trappers, and fish and wildlife officials. “I came to the conclusion that, ‘Yeah, the program probably made sense at that time.’ But it wasn’t communicated very well, and they hadn’t done what I did, which was meet with all these different groups.”

Building on that experience, Bath later worked with groups to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and on wolf control issues in the Yukon.

His role, he says, is never to advise the parties.

“The local people are closest to the resource, they understand the resource best, and it’s the local people who are either going to fight to protect it or to kill it, depending on how well they feel their needs are met.”

Often those needs, at least at the start, can appear in conflict. Ranchers might worry about losing stock to predators, while trappers might fear the loss of a fur resource.

Indigenous people with traditional ties to the land may have a stake in the discussion too, along with hunters, and those who want to promote eco-tourism.

Public safety may even be a concern in populated areas, along with the broader role carnivores play in a healthy eco-system. When wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone Park, they took a “bite” out of the elk population. Reduced grazing enabled willow, aspen and cottonwood trees to grow, which created habitat for moose, beaver and other species. And predators of all stripes can help keep pest species such as rodents and rabbits in check.

Bath’s job is to bring all those diverse groups (and interests) together, and find common ground.

Apex Predators

While large carnivores are at the top of the local food chain, they’re not immune to survival pressures. “Bears, wolves, mountain lions and other large predators need big spaces,” says Bath. “But they’re also willing to try to avoid people, so I don’t think we have to find solutions like a huge protected area. Instead, we need a willingness to share.”

At the start of facilitation process, he says, he takes a big-picture approach: “I frame questions in such a way that you get people to think about bigger things first, rather than the details — because conflicts often emerge over details.

“Say someone wants 1,000 wolves, but only 1,000. Okay, what happens when you have 1,001? Do we bring out the helicopter gunships, or how do we handle this? And how do we even know we have 1,001? And why 1,000? Why not 950? Or 1,200?”

Bath says he’s yet to encounter a situation where anyone has advocated the extermination of a carnivore species. But to remain viable, populations have to exceed a certain threshold. Biologists can help determine that number, then it’s a matter of whether the will exists to accommodate that level of predator activity.

“When you talk wildlife management, you talk more about tolerance levels,” Bath says. “If you had 20 wolves in an area, but they kept killing massive amounts of sheep, then 20 would be too many. If you had 2,000, and you had a few livestock losses, but the ranching community and the public said that’s okay, we expect to lose a few, then 2,000 is fine.

“People sometimes get hung up on numbers, and my job is to find out what they really want. Do you want zero conflicts, do you want wildlife viewing opportunities, do you want a tourism industry built on the animal, or ways to protect your stock?”

Wildlife will typically do what wildlife does, Bath concludes.

“It’s people who decide whether we’re going to shoot them or protect them; set aside protected areas or continue development and see them disappear. So what we’ve really got to manage is the people.

“And when given the chance to work together, people do work hard to find solutions.”

Bath is speaking at the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation’s annual convention in Regina on Feb. 16. For more details, visit swf.sk.ca.

Lessons To Learn

Besides Canada and the U.S., Alistair Bath has worked in Europe (with wolves bears and Eurasian lynx), Kenya (lions) and India (tigers).

In North America, he says, too often we end up taking hard-line positions where we either seek to protect every last animal or opt for fairly aggressive control efforts. That contrasts with his experience abroad, where different interest groups have worked together to develop innovative solutions.

The Lion Guardians program in Kenya is a perfect example. Administered by Egyptian conservation biologist Leela Hazzah, it covers about 5,500 sq. km of non-protected habitat, and involves hiring Maasai warriors — who traditionally hunt lions — to monitor the population and mitigate conflicts between wildlife and people.

India has plenty of lessons to teach us in North America too, says Bath. “It’s a country of 1.3 billion. It still has tigers, lions, leopards, wolves, bears, elephants and a bunch of other animals that can kill people, and do kill people on a fairly regular basis. All these animals take a huge amount of space, and a much poorer country than Canada, with a much higher population density, has figured out a way to make it work.”

One time, Bath recalls, he met with the director of the wildlife institute in India.

“He had me over to his house for dinner, which is basically on the campus where studies are being done,” says Bath. “It’s getting dark, and he says ‘Hang on a minute. I have to go outside and tell my young kids to come in because the leopards are out.’ It’s just part of daily life there.”

When people in India learn how large Newfoundland is, and how sparsely populated it is, they’re often surprised, says Bath. “They go, ‘Wow, you must have hundreds of thousands of carnivores.’ I go, ‘No, we got rid of them. We don’t have the tolerance, or willingness to share and find solutions.’” /Gregory Beatty