Answering the call of the wild

Human-wildlife conflict is a growing issue in the US, threatening wolves and bears. What's the solution?
By Jennie Miller, Senior Scientist at Defenders Of Wildlife’s Center for Conservation Innovation

Wolves and bears have both existed in North America for thousands of years. As native species, wolves and bears are an integral part of our natural heritage.

Their presence keeps our nation’s land healthy. Wolves and bears are apex predators at the top of the food chain, and they play an important role in regulating ecosystems. They keep other species in check, for example, by eating deer and other herbivores, so those species don’t overgraze gardens and farms.

These so-called ‘ecosystem services’ and the benefits that they offer to people are critical for maintaining the natural systems that we rely on for our recreation, agriculture, health and wellbeing. This is why it’s so important to protect wolves and bears, and return them to their natural homes, so they can step back into their natural roles in the food chain and help restore North America’s ecosystems.

Photo by Gary-Kramer / USFWS

Human-wildlife conflict is a major issue in the US. As the human population has grown across the continent, our settlements have dominated, pushing predators like wolves and bears out of many landscapes. Human-wildlife conflict, especially persecution by overhunting, has driven the decline of many species in the US, including some beloved top predators like wolves, grizzlies, jaguars and Florida panthers, as well as bison.

But we’re at an interesting time in history, when humans are encroaching on wolf and bear territory and, in other places, wolves and bears are returning to landscapes that are now full of people. In both cases, people and predators are coming into contact more often than in recent memory. Many communities need support and encouragement to coexist with wildlife, just as in other countries around the world.

Photo from USFWS

It’s part of a global picture. The Earth is now entering the sixth mass extinction. As many as one million species on our planet are at risk of extinction because of the pressures people have placed on species over time. As we lose species, we lose the benefits those species offer. Essentially, the fabric of our planet is unravelling. 77 per cent of large carnivore species alone – big-bodied predators, like jaguars and polar bears – are declining, meaning their numbers are continuing to decrease and populations are shrinking or going extinct.

In the US, largely due to the Endangered Species Act, a great deal of conservation work is helping some species like grey wolves and grizzly bears increase in numbers and expand their range. It’s an exciting time for these species.

Photo by Clark Jim / USFWS

Unfortunately, not all species are as lucky. Red wolves and Mexican wolves, for example, two other subspecies of wolf in the US, are still desperately struggling to hang on where they’ve been reintroduced and need a great deal of help from us.

In the US, some ranchers consider their land as part of the bigger ecosystem and take efforts to protect the native species with whom they share that land, including wolves. They use tools like electric fencing and blinking lights, called Foxlights, and guard dogs to keep wolves away from livestock. These tools are highly effective at keeping wolves and livestock separate and therefore safe.

Other ranchers are focused more on their livestock than the broader ecosystem, or they may be strained because they’re focusing on making ends meet. They may lack the tools or knowledge about how to coexist with wolves. These are the folks that tend not to be as welcoming to the wolves that share the landscape.

Photo from USFWS

Just like wolves, grizzly bears were overhunted and are now returning to many landscapes. In some cases, people don’t know how to live alongside grizzlies. Since we tend to fear the unknown, they consider grizzlies a danger or a nuisance. But as we work with people to equip them with the tools to live alongside grizzlies, like carrying bear spray when hiking or trash bins for securing their garbage, we see the fear replaced by knowledge and a more welcoming attitude.

Wolves do occasionally attack livestock, although the number of depredations by wolves are minuscule compared to livestock losses to disease or other natural causes. Bears can attack livestock or, more commonly, scavenge discarded livestock carcasses, and can attack people but, again, these incidents are rare.

People tend to focus on incidents. But science is increasingly showing us that human-wildlife conflict really stems more from people’s perceptions about wildlife than it does from real incidents. We humans react strongly to ideas and emotions, and tend to form attitudes towards predators that aren’t necessary based in reality.

For example, when wolves or grizzlies return to landscapes as the result of conservation efforts, some people dislike those animals not because the animals actually cause harm, but because those people feel ignored or not involved in the process. Through the years, conservationists have learned that we can prevent human-wildlife conflict in some cases by working closely with local communities, to make them involved decision-makers in the conservation process.

Photo by William C. Campbell / USFWS

People and wildlife coming into contact is not necessarily a problem if people have the right tools and knowledge to avoid conflict. With the right tools, such as bear-secure garbage cans or deterrents that keep wolves away, people and predators can live together. People and wildlife can co-exist, rather than conflicting.

Living with bears requires the use of accessible tools, like keeping bear spray with you at all times, using bear-secure trash cans and using electric fences to protect property and livestock. To live with wolves, ranchers are using predator deterrents, like Foxlights, fencing hung with red flags, and range riders to accompany herds to keep wolves and livestock separate and safe. This is the world we’re working towards, a world where people adjust their behavior slightly to accommodate wildlife, a world of human-wildlife coexistence instead of human-wildlife conflict.

As we humans continue to grow and expand our own populations, we need to think carefully about where and how we live. In many cases, a relatively simple adjustment can enable us to coexist with wildlife. There are many tools already available to us to help us live with wildlife.

Now is also an exciting time of innovation, and we’re creating new technologies and ways of exchanging information to develop new solutions. Human-wildlife conflict is certainly a complex challenge, but it’s a challenge worth tackling because the future of people and our planet depends on it.

Defenders Of Wildlife website:

Follow them on Instagram: @defendersofwildlife.

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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