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On the side of consensus

Dr. Alistair Bath


By Janet Harron

Reports of polar bears coming ashore on the island of Newfoundland recently are classic examples of wildlife and human interactions, according to geography professor Dr. Alistair Bath.

In a recent interview with CBC Radio's On the Go, Dr. Bath pointed out that with regards to the polar bear issue, the answer lies in researching public tolerance.
"We could try something here — at the moment we are forced into crisis management," he said during his conversation with host Ted Blades. "We're talking about whether the public is willing to change their behaviour to try and change the likelihood of a bear's survival."

Dr. Bath stressed the need to determine whether there is room for co-existence rather than conflict.

In his ongoing work with large carnivores as part of the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe Special Species Group (IUCN LCIE SSG), Dr. Bath and his research team question community residents about how much risk they are willing to take and how much tolerance they have (be it property damage, proximity to the community, etc.). They then work to understand where the breaking point is — referred to as wildlife acceptance capacity.

The problem, Dr. Bath says, is that interactions between polar bears and humans are limited; therefore humans do not know how to behave around them.
"Will the public tolerate a lockdown at a school if a bear is in the vicinity, or is there a way of keeping people indoors until the bear leaves the area? We have to see if the public is willing to tolerate shared space. We are definitely going to see more of this in the future as the space between wildlife and people becomes increasingly blurred."

Most recently, Dr. Bath was asked to use his applied human dimensions facilitated workshop approach in Jerusalem, Israel, to explore possible common values and consensus toward an urban biosphere concept involving Israel and Palestinian authorities. Although the heaviest shelling since 2007 occurred while he was there in early March 2012, Dr. Bath secured 30 pages of agreement through facilitated discussion by listening and working with all the interest groups in the room. In fact, common ideas and results from the workshop will be presented at Rio+20, the United Nations conference on sustainable development being held in June.

In the meetings he regularly facilitates in Europe — he has worked in Portugal Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Greece, Macedonia and Latvia — Dr. Bath listens to diverse groups talk about their experience with wildlife. Hunters, shepherds, foresters, environmentalists and government officials are invited to voice their perspectives, attitudes and concerns.

"In Italy, a brown bear walks into a community, kills a chicken and is called an orso confidente or confident bear. He's not called an orso problematico or problem bear," he explained. "In North America, wildlife in urban areas is usually considered a problem that has to be managed. We only have to listen to the reactions when coyotes are seen in St. John's for example."

A recent recipient of the Dean of Arts Award for Graduate Supervision, Dr. Bath believes that applied research should be integrated into the university system.
"Making a difference on the ground is more important to me at the moment than going for the more academic side. Although I still publish, I want to invest my time where I can make a difference," he said. "I'm happy that I'm at a university that allows me to do that blend – it's a rare thing. Not too many are doing that. I am also very fortunate to have a great human dimensions team of master and PhD students from around the world that I get to work with on these applied conservation challenges."

The nature of his work requires time and a significant commitment. This past January, he reached a consensus on a wolf management plan in Bulgaria that began four years ago, including 10, two-day workshops.

The key, he believes, is objectivity.

"That's why it's easier for someone from outside – I have no baggage and am not on one side or another."

As for closer to home, Dr. Bath hopes the consensus approach between humans and wildlife will be considered the next time an ursus maritimus makes landfall on the island of Newfoundland.