You look out the window, and there is a bear in your backyard. What do you do? Call the authorities? Engage the bear in single combat? Flee the country?
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) website, “conflict between people and animals is one of the main threats to the continued survival of many species in different parts of the world and is also a significant threat to local human populations.” When humans and large predators come into contact, there is a very real chance one or both sides will sustain losses – the humans may lose crops, property, or livestock, and one or both sides might well lose their very lives. As a result of such instances, things are thrown off-balance – the local ecosystem is deprived of a crucial participant, and the constructed local human economy suffers from the loss of livelihood. All because an unexpected bear wandered into someone’s yard.
Situations like this are exactly what the US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange (SEE) Protection of Flora and Fauna Working Group is working to prevent. For its 2015 project, the Working Group is bringing together wildlife specialists from Russia and the US to survey best practices for preventing human-wildlife conflict. Instead of teaching the populace how to deal with the bear once it has already invaded their backyard, the working group is working to ensure that the bear never goes there in the first place.
In order to do so, the working group assembled a group of specialists that represent an impressive array of organizations and agencies from Russia and the US. In her blog, Russian SEE fellow Irina Kozyr notes the depth and breadth of the group – from the Russian side alone there were experts from “the Sikhote-Alin and Kronotsk preserves, the protected area from the Primorsky Territory, and from WWF Russia… In the USA, we met up with specialists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.” Once united, the group set out on their trip: they would visit choice preserves in the US before undertaking a reciprocal visit to Russia and doing the same.
The group first toured several locations in the US, learning about conflict prevention methodologies in the National Elk Preserve in Wyoming and the Blackfoot Challenge organization in Montana. According to Kozyr, they learned much about how “in the USA, they strive to achieve peaceful coexistence between people and large predators by means of constant collaboration with local communities, i.e. they try to prevent conflict situations from arising.”
Interestingly, the WWF site says that conflict prevention methods “are often creative and simple,” and the Working Group witnessed that firsthand. In an interview, working group member Sean Carnell explained two easy methods of conflict prevention in residential or tourist areas that they learned about. “One simple example is… [providing] bear-proof containers for visitors and for certain campers.” Commented one Russian working group member, “It’s simple and something cheap and easy that people can purchase…so that we’re not attracting bears onto our protected areas, because Kamchatka has countless bears.”
The second example is something called a “carcass dump.” The idea behind a carcass dump is the removal of roadkill and other animals that died from natural causes in close proximity to residences or roads and strategically placing them all in the specifically designated remote locations in the wilderness. In other words, as Carnell says, it is “a place to decompose the critter, pull it out of the area so that we’re not attracting things with big teeth in residential areas.” Carcass dumps also offer an avenue to working with ranchers, as any prematurely deceased calves, for example, are also prime candidates for these dumps. Thus, in addition to preventing conflict, carcass dumps are, Carnell added, also “a unique way to engage communities from all different backgrounds to protect wildlife and make sure that their livelihood is protected.”
In fact, this engagement is representative of the most important aspect of conflict prevention; often, biologists and other conservation workers have to cooperate not with animals, but with the people that are based in the area. One participant from Russia remarked in a post-visit survey: “As a result of these meetings, I understood that one of the important challenges in working to preserve wild animals is working with the local community. This is difficult and time-consuming work, which does not immediately lead to positive results, but it has to become one of our priorities.”
To this end, the working group is planning to release informational brochures for residents in the US and Russia that are in close proximity to “charismatic large predators,” as they are called in the group’s first brochure, in which they explain their goals and objectives. In this second wave of brochures, they plan to list out steps that local residents can take to “not attract bears to [their] backyard.”
In April, the working group completed its corresponding trip to Russia. The group’s specialists went on a car trip spanning many hundreds of kilometers between various preserves in the eastern part of the country, this time with the American participants studiously observing the practices and peculiarities of Russian wildlife preserves.
The trip helped open the US experts’ eyes as to the differences between US and Russian preserves. Perhaps the greatest impact of the trip was that the specialists now explicitly understand that, in order for their methods to have wide-ranging success, they have to fall back on one of humanity’s most vaunted attributes: adaptability. As one Russian fellow put it, “not everything that works in one country will have the same result in another. We tried to adapt a given method to a concrete situation and developed several possible solutions.”
And once people begin implementing the various adaptable measures, the working group predicts that the positive outcomes will include a decrease in human-wildlife conflict, as well as greater appreciation from various stakeholders regarding the public benefit, economic opportunity, and ecosystem services of given protected areas.
Though the working group members and fellows face challenges that may seem difficult to surmount, the specialists’ resilience, enthusiasm, and dogged determination have enabled them to tackle these challenges with smiles on their faces. And if these traits weren’t enough, they have a powerful ally in their quest for balance between humans and predators – nature.
As Kozyr writes in her blog: “You can’t fool nature. Everything must be in moderation.”