When More Science Isn’t Better

I’ll never forget the first, and only, time I was turned down to give a presentation at a meeting. It’s pretty rare to get turned down for conferences, and if you do, you usually at least get asked to present a poster. It was for the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), my favorite conference, and I was disappointed, but also really confused. I studied African forest elephants, a keystone species living in a biodiversity hotspot that was being decimated by poachers and headed towards extinction. Despite my disappointment, I still attended the meeting, and when I did it became clear to me why I wasn’t presenting.

Since my SCB meeting ten years ago, there has been a noticeable and deliberate shift by the society to expand conservation biology to fields traditionally not included, yet vital to conservation practice such as economics, social sciences, marketing, policy, and even art. To make room for such talks, talks that exclusively focus on the science of the species or ecosystem, were excluded, and to the dismay of some scientists. While I am an advocate of fully understanding a species in order to conserve it, I’ve come around to SCB’s point of view. For so many conservation problems, the solution extends to greater problems outside of the species or ecosystem. For example, when it comes to my forest elephants, studying them cannot help them if they are being shot by poachers. The poaching needs to stop and to achieve this, we need to understand humans.

Last week, was the first time I attended The Wildlife Society (TWS) meeting and I was a little surprised, at the smaller emphasis on human dimensions. While there were full sessions on human dimensions and communication, compared to SCB, there were much less, and the sessions were more foundational. For example, sessions at TWS explained the importance of social media, while at SCB, sessions assumed people already used social media and focused on how to use it in conservation marketing. At SCB, checking my Twitter feed in the morning, could take me 30 minutes to an hour, while at TWS, it took only a few minutes. In other words, there was a notable lack of tweeting and therefore science communication.

Rather, the focus of TWS was quantitative – on sophisticated modeling. These talks were the most attended – standing room only at times, while others were less filled. But when it comes to managing wildlife, will more sophisticated analyses help us?

Most people go into this field because they love wildlife, and therefore want to study it directly. But as I delved deeper into my forest elephant work and the longer I have been in this career, I realize more and more that for most species and conservation problems, the solutions do not depend on the animal’s biology. For example, I went to one talk on the Mexican Gray wolf reintroduction program in relation to Apache Native Americans. Without prior knowledge, one would assume that Apaches would tolerate wolves, having coexisted with them historically. However, when the wolves would go on one of the Apache reservations, they would get upset and call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove them. A biologist decided to start studying the Apache living there to find out how they valued the wolves. When she started to interview the people, they asked her “where were you 12 years ago?” (when the wolves were reintroduced). Through her interviews she found the Apache did not support the wolf program because they felt that you could not play god twice*. Europeans extirpated the wolves first, and then reintroduced them, which in their minds was not right. If the wolves do not have habitat to use (i.e. the support of the Apache), costly reintroduction programs can fail.

Mexican gray wolf being released into the wild.

As another example, through Twitter I saw that there were a lot of talks on feral cats and their impacts on wildlife. While the science consistently supports the message “outdoor cats = murder for wildlife,” the cat lovers don’t care. Not that they hate wildlife, but they love cats so much that no amount of scientific knowledge was going to change their mind or behavior.

One presenter showed POV videos from feral cats. One cat unknowingly recorded another cat harassing a snake for four hours.

Scientists largely operate on the information deficit model, which is founded on the idea that more knowledge and information will change behaviors and mindsets. But what scientists fail to include is that attitudes and behaviors are largely driven by deeply-rooted individual and societal values, which are much harder to change. Ever have a political “fight” on Facebook with someone? Did adding more facts convince the other person? A recent paper by Manfredo et al. 2016 points out that instead of trying to change people’s values, we should try to formulate conservation solutions that incorporate existing values. In fact, it takes major socioeconomic events for values to change such as war or emigrating to new countries.

The title of my post is a little misleading – more science will help, but for conservation and the management of wildlife, we need to shift the emphasis off of the species in question and on to people as part of the solution.

*My biologist friend pointed out that there are actually two Apache reservations that the wolves go on with opposing views. The White Mountain Apache Reservation supports the wolves and even has their own wolf biologists, while the San Carlos Apache reservation mentioned here, does not support the wolves.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew Cox says:

    Nice article, Stephanie! Our agency has hired two human dimensions scientists and an economist and also provides substantial support to a UF wildlife faculty member focused on human dimensions. We spend a lot of time working with stakeholders to understand what motivates and inspires them. One of our current core initiatives focuses on developing relationships with landowners to take advantage of mutually beneficial conservation opportunities. It is a process, but it has resulted in substantive conservation gains. Some of our private lands staff recently shared this video with me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qEr-OhhTzQ&ab_channel=PartnersforConservation

    In the face of enormous conservation challenges I find these kind of partnerships inspiring. I am hopeful that other state agencies are similarly engaged and what you saw at TWS was not representative of on-the-ground efforts.

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