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Human-Wildlife Coexistence

November 7, 2019
Bozeman Airport

Urban nature, of sorts? Airport in Bozeman, mountains outside of the city.


I recently returned from beautiful Bozeman, Montana, where I was a participant in the first-ever Human-Wildlife Coexistence Summit, organized by Defenders of Wildlife. We were based at a rustic retreat an hour or so outside of Bozeman, settled in a valley between two mountain ranges. I’ve never been, and I have to say I was stunned by how gorgeous the land is. It really swept me off my feet.

But back to urban wildlife…

The summit was created to provide a forum for coexistence practitioners of all sorts from many different angles (government, academic, non-profit, private landowners and ranchers, etc.) to come together and learn from each other. Being out west, most of the participants were focused on more rural issues (wolves and livestock, for example). However, many of the stories and experiences they shared resonated with me, and I think they’re relevant to cities as well.

I’ve talked about language before in a few posts, and language was a theme throughout several of our conversations. For starters, some people pointed out that the very word “coexistence” was problematic for many. It can be seen as being paternalistic, even punitive — some might see calls for coexistence to be a mandate that deprives them of much-needed security, money, and other resources. The language practitioners might use to work with landowners and other stakeholders can veer from simply offering services to telling people what they should and should not do. As we’ve all seen in some aspect of our lives, someone walking in and telling you what you should and should not do is a turn-off, compared to someone walking up to you and offering you assistance. Different language, different approaches, and probably different results.

Let’s take an urban example: bears and bear-proof garbage cans. I once met a woman who moved to Boulder, Colorado, home to many people and many black bears. She enjoyed wildlife and was an environmentalist, but when confronted with a problem related to sharing her city with bears she was unhappy. For example, she hated the bear-proof garbage cans that the city makes her use, because they’re heavy and don’t have much volume because the sides are so thick (needless to say that bear-proof garbage cans are built to be very strong). I was surprised by how vehemently she expressed herself.

As the summit went on, her story came back to me and I wondered if things would be different if she had been approached in another way. Now, I want to be clear: Boulder has a public safety interest in making sure bears steer well-clear of humans, and that means getting people to comply with regulations such as keeping garbage secure. In an area with a lot of people, if only one or two don’t cooperate you can lose a lot of ground. So jurisdictions like Boulder are being responsible when their regulations are strict. But in areas where regulations are not in place, and the use of bear-proof trash cans is voluntary, you might end up with more people signing on if you approach it from a slightly different place: providing resources and tools to help stop and prevent a problem, rather than preaching that we need to coexist with bears. These two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive; frankly, I think the people who are moved by coexistence arguments will get there even if the educational material is fairly utilitarian in nature. But it could gain the cooperation of people who do not consider themselves environmentalists or conservationists. You have a problem. We can provide help to stop the problem. End of story.



Courtesy of Jens Nietschmann , Wikimedia Commons



Another theme that came up was the need to reach out and work with what might be considered unusual partners. Sometimes we actually do have common ground with people and groups we might usually see as being diametrically opposed to our goals. Rather than concentrate on the differences and conflict, it sometimes pays to see where there is overlapping interest. One I think of often is “the cat people” versus “bird people” conflict. In brief:

  1. Cats are outside either because a) their owners let them outside, or b) they’re feral
  2. Cats kill birds and other small animals
  3. Bird people get upset
  4. Bird people call for cats (especially feral cats) to be killed
  5. Cat people rise up in arms because they don’t want cats to be killed
  6. And so on, ad nauseam

It’s more complicated than that, and certainly there are a lot of people who see themselves as both cat and bird people. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s leave it at that for the moment.

These two groups can really go at it like (sorry) cats and dogs. I mean, claws flashing, blood flying – it can get pretty intense. But the thing is, there’s a whole lot of common ground that they can find. Cat people by and large want cats to have happy homes – they aren’t necessarily thrilled with the idea that there are feral cat colonies out there. Bird people also don’t want there to be feral cat colonies. So the question is, why do we have feral cat colonies in the first place? The answer, of course, is us. By definition feral animals are animals that were domesticated but are no longer under human care, and so behave like wild animals. Pigeons and mustangs are other examples of feral animals. For there to be feral cats, there must first be domesticated cats. Sometimes domestic cats are dumped when it’s no longer convenient to keep them as pets (areas around colleges are notorious for this). Sometimes people don’t neuter their pet cats and allow them to roam free to breed with stray and feral cats. Bottom line: this is a human-caused problem, and so needs a human-solution.

While we can argue over what to do with cats that are currently living out on the streets or in rural areas, it’s just a revolving door problem unless we address the root causes, because there will always be new abandoned cats and new unfixed cats. So, while arguing over the current situation, why don’t the two sides also get together and do something about the underlying cause of the whole thing? In a future post I’ll discuss one example of groups doing exactly that, but for now I’ll leave it as: it can pay off to find non-obvious partners and learn to work together to achieve common goals.

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