MUN researcher brings a human dimension to Prairie wolf conference
Although he is not a biologist, Memorial University academic Alistair Bath has a lot to teach natural scientists and conservationists about the nature of human dimensions in the field of wildlife management.
That’s not as surprising as it might seem. Bath is, after all, considered a world leader in that field.
A professor in MUN’s department of geography, Bath recently gave a talk entitled the Human Dimensions in Large Carnivore Management at the First International Wolf and Carnivore Conference in Thompson, Man.
Fiona Scurrah, an environmental assessment officer with Manitoba Hydro, was at the conference and said Bath brings an expanded and balanced perspective to the issue of wildlife management — one that is especially helpful to those dealing with the issue from a purely scientific or research perspective.
“This is even more apparent with regulators making decisions for the public good and regarding public resources,” she added.
“The old wildlife management philosophy of ‘us against them’ in relation to predator management or control has to be rethought and needs to have a broader audience in that type of policy direction. You will not always have the right answer, but the more engagement you undertake the more informed decisions you will have.”
Scurrah, who has just completed an master’s of science degree at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., emphasized that engagement has to been seen and viewed as actually meaning something.
“If the audience feels they are window dressing, the less meaningful the engagement,” she said.
Winnipeg wildlife biologist Vince Crichton, an ungulate specialist, also welcomed Bath’s presentation.
“We are not trained to deal with social issues, and many of the issues we deal with today are socially related — problem wildlife, environmental protection, uncontrolled use of wildlife, and related concerns,” he said.
“For those of us who have been in the wildlife game for many years, his ideas were refreshers, and without a doubt new concepts to the younger crowd just getting into the game, as well as those non wildlife-biologists present.”
Bath has been studying human-environment interactions and natural resource management issues for 30 years.
“Many of those years, I have been working with wolves and the various interest groups that sometimes want more of them or less of them, or individuals who have real concerns and want them addressed when conflicts occur between wolves and people,” he said.
Bath said the human dimension of wildlife resource management is particularly important when designing and implementing management plans for large carnivores, which often arouse conflicting emotions among the public.
“Indeed, large carnivore management is often more a socio-political issue than a biological one,” he said.
“Wolf populations and their conservation in France, for example, appear to be highly dependent upon human factors more than biological factors.”
Bath shared the story of a 77-year-old shepherd in the Republic of Croatia, who might have several sheep. If a wolf kills a sheep, it is a major problem — not one that can be glossed over with statistics.
“From an agricultural industry perspective, this would be less than one tenth of one per cent of all the losses. But, this is a significant issue for that individual shepherd,” he said.
“We need to find solutions for these interactions.”
Bath knows from one of his earliest experiences as a child hearing wolves howl in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario that Canis lupus can also have positive interactions with people, creating a sense of awe and a belief that wilderness still exists.
This affirmative attitude towards wilderness results from contact with other species, too.
Bath recalls biologists telling him about how the most endangered cat in the world, the Iberian lynx, was declining every year, and that biological research had documented this decline.
A few years ago, he was invited to a meeting in Madrid by the Council of Europe to discuss the issue.
“In this case, I stated to the biological scientists that I thought this could be the best documented case of an extinction and asked where Iberian lynx lived,” said Bath, who has a PhD from the University of Calgary.
“The biologists started to describe the habitat, but what I wanted to know was who owned the land.”
The answer to his question was 14 landowners.
“So, I asked if anyone had listened to these landowners,” said Bath.
“The biologists looked at me like I had three heads, and asked why would we want to talk to them. I then clearly knew why I was there — it was to introduce the idea of the human dimensions of wildlife management. It’s not about studying people, but it’s about working with people and listening to their issues and finding solutions.”
Bath has worked on a variety of environmental issues, not only wildlife management, throughout the world. Recently, he had the opportunity to work with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities in Jerusalem toward creating an urban biosphere for the holy city and surrounding areas.
He was involved in wolf reintroduction issues in Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, as well as wolf control in B.C. and Yukon.
Earlier this year, he successfully achieved 100 per cent consensus between shepherds, hunters, foresters, environmentalists, biologists and different levels of government on a national wolf management plan for Bulgaria.
He has also worked on brown bear issues in Bulgaria and Slovakia, lynx issues in Poland, and bison restoration in Germany. One of his favourite projects has been working with the Masai in Kenya, helping them transform from lion killers to lion guardians.
“All my projects involve listening and working with people toward coexistence rather than conflict,” Bath said.
“We are born with two ears and one mouth, and perhaps we should be listening at least twice as much as talking when engaging various interest groups.”