Research Report 2007

Tracking the human dimensions of wildlife management

Portrait of Dr. Alistair Bath holding a wolf cub

Dr. Alistair Bath, shown here with a wolf cub, is focused on understanding the human dimension of wildlife conservation.

Dr. Alistair Bath, Geography Department, headed back to Bulgaria, listening to diverse interest groups talk about brown bears. In the room: hunters, shepherds, foresters, environmentalists and government officials, all voicing their perspectives, attitudes and concerns.

As the meeting's facilitator, Dr. Bath's goal is to help develop a management strategy for bears that all these groups can accept.

"My job is really conflict resolution," he explained before his trip. "I'm always trying to figure out what a conflict is about: Is it about knowledge? Is it about values? Is it about economics?"

The work is complicated, however, by the fact that Dr. Bath doesn't speak Bulgarian, so he relies on local expertise, and on the theory that only a small percentage of communication happens through words.

"We communicate mainly through body language " it's all about watching people, listening with the eyes."

In Bulgaria, he noted, an added challenge is remembering that a nod up and down means "no," while a nod side-to-side signals agreement.

This trip marks his sixth visit to Bulgaria to discuss bears in the past year. It's impossible to know exactly how long it may take to reach an agreement; often, he said, people get agitated and things go awry just when a solution seems near. However, Dr. Bath is heartened by a major breakthrough at the last meeting: "They came to an agreement that the current method of assessing how many bears there are is useless."

As a result, some new census methods are being tried, and their implementation will be discussed this week.

Dr. Bath isn't involved only in Bulgaria. He began this work by helping with the re-introduction of wolves into America's Yellowstone Park as part of his masters and doctoral studies almost 20 years ago. After he attended a meeting in Poland on resource management and human dimensions, his interests took off in that direction. He's worked on wildlife management planning in Spain, France, Poland, Croatia, Italy and Portugal, and serves as an adjunct professor for the Technical University of Munich's international sustainable resource management program and regularly teaches in Rome for a master's program on conservation biology. In 1997, he took a year's leave from Memorial, where he's taught since 1991, to conduct human dimensions research programs throughout Europe for World Wild Fund for Nature International.

Closer to home, Dr. Bath has been involved with forestry and moose management issues in the province, and done community involvement exercises in and around Terra Nova and Gros Morne National Parks. While almost all his work involves large animals - primarily carnivores, but also some herbivores - he readily acknowledges it's the human dimension that fascinates him: "We don't actually manage wildlife, we manage people and whether they should shoot or protect the wildlife."

This year, Dr. Bath is beginning a new project in Italy's Abruzzo Molise Lazio National Park to explore residents' attitudes toward bears and wolves. "We'll be looking at knowledge levels and existence values - asking questions like "does a wolf have a right to exist??" he explained.

At the outset of a project, research and surveys help Dr. Bath identify issues, as well as attitudes and knowledge gaps that could be creating conflict.

In the Italian national park project, preliminary findings indicate one issue is the highly competitive truffle trade, which sees harvesters put down poison bait to kill their competitors' truffle-hunting dogs. Unfortunately, that poison is also fatal for bears and wolves. The question, Dr. Bath said, is whether the poisoners are even aware they're impacting wildlife.

If that sounds like a potential powder keg, don't worry. Despite walking into some pretty pressurized settings, he's never had a situation turn threatening. "I've yet to be anywhere where listening to people causes a problem," he laughed.

The broad-based public involvement that Dr. Bath is facilitating is an innovative approach to meeting European Union requirements that wildlife management plans be in place. As in North America, he said, government design and implementation - perhaps following consultation - is the more traditional method. However, he believes that bringing all the interest groups to the table is crucial to devising a successful solution.

To arrive at those solutions, he first asks people to articulate principles, not specific positions. From there, some common ground can be found to help get at what the group's ultimate vision and goals are. Only then can policies for achieving these be developed.

Often, he said, what comes to the fore are some pretty familiar values. "Shepherds, for example, are concerned about subsidies for lost sheep and other economic issues - but ultimately about young people leaving the rural areas, about the loss of a way of life."

While Dr. Bath's work tends to be very applied - he noted that he spends a lot more time writing reports for governments lately than authoring academic papers for peer review - it all feeds into his deeper pursuit. "It's all part of trying to figure out how public involvement works, and what processes and mechanisms work best to reach better decisions."

Ultimately, he said, his goal is to make a small difference toward better resource conservation.

For more information, visit: http://www.mun.ca/geog/people/faculty/abath.php