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Webinar with Dr. Michelle Lute, Project Coyote National Carnivore Conservation Manager

Topic: (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Coexisting

Full Webinar Replay


What does it mean to coexist with wildlife?

How do we define coexistence and measure it in the real world? Do professionals agree on how, where and when we’re coexisting with some of the most controversial carnivores? What role do animal welfare and rights considerations play in conservation and coexistence?

Lastly, what are people doing to implement best coexistence practices on the ground? In this free webinar, wildlife advocate and Project Coyote National Carnivore Conservation Manager Dr. Michelle Lute explores these questions and offers preliminary answers from academic and practical perspectives, rooting discussion in case studies and real-world examples.

blankDr. Lute is a conservation scientist and advocate with fifteen years’ experience in biodiversity conservation on public and private lands around the globe. She dedicates her professional life to promoting human-wildlife coexistence through effective public engagement, equitable participatory processes, and evidence-based decision-making.

Across her career in academic, government, and non-profit sectors, the common thread throughout Michelle’s work is developing solutions to challenging human-wildlife issues. As is often the case, so-called human-wildlife conflicts are more about disagreements between humans and thus solutions require an interdisciplinary approach.

 

Questions & Answers from Webinar:

Question: When the use of social legitimacy is used, how is this defined in this area/situation?

Answer: This is a great question and the answer could get quite detailed. I’ll try to strike a balance…
Legitimacy in the context of democratic decision-making refers to “beliefs about, support of, or acceptance for a regime with a political (Beetham 1991, Matti 2010), normative, or moral (Lamb 2005) rightfulness to power” [From Serenari, C., & Taub, M. (2019). Predicting the legitimacy of wolf recovery. Wildlife Biology, 2019(1)]. In other words, legitimacy is about whether or not constituents respect and recognize the authority of a decision-maker and its policies. A lack of social legitimacy results in everything from retaliatory killing of carnivores to undermined decision processes that could be more successful with enhanced cooperations among constituents. If you’re interested in more details about legitimacy and its role in carnivore conservation, the above-referenced article from Serenari and Taub (2019) explain various dimensions of legitimacy, including the following except: “The first dimension is input legitimacy, which suggests that decision-making should express the preferences of the relevant constituencies and incorporates expert knowledge. Output legitimacy comprises the second dimension, which expresses governance as effective, representative, efficient, and able to solve problems. The third dimension is throughput legitimacy, concerned with the quality of governance practices. Accountable, transparent, deliberative, responsive, and reliable are a few of the virtues that comprise this dimension.”

Question: Do they attack little dogs?

Answer: I believe this question was in relation to coyotes. Yes, aggressions from coyotes and other carnivores on companion animals are rare but do occur. Cause of attacks include defense of territory and young offspring as well as potential predation. Attacks are easily prevented by keeping dogs leashed and cats indoors.

Question: I have heard people advocate for installing water reservoirs in the mountains to keep more coyotes and wildlife in the mountains and away from urban areas in California. Do you know if this does help? If so, where has it been successful?  

Answer: I’m not familiar with published studies assessing water reservoirs and carnivores specifically but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Studies exist to assess how to improve water sources for ungulates. Putting my speculating ecologist hat on, I would say that success will vary by species. Given that coyotes are good at living near humans, I’m dubious that water reservoirs (aka drinkers, guzzlers, etc.) would keep coyotes from urban areas (and the associated great rodent prey base). Water reservoirs can influence other wildlife such as deer and elk. If these water reservoirs don’t have livestock exclusions then they can also attract livestock and lead to habitat degradation when livestock hang around the water source. In short, human-maintained water reservoirs need to be carefully planned to ensure they actually benefit wildlife and habitat. I would argue that climate change mitigation and protecting the rights of natural streams, rivers, and other water bodies to keep their own water is a best practice for conserving wildlife and preserving ecosystem function broadly.

Question: Have you found that fencing is a controversial tool, particularly on rangeland?

[answered live]

Question: When so many conflict-reduction tools are available (and are relatively simple to implement), why are so many ranchers and other property owners resistant to using them?

[answered live]

Question: Will any wildlife organizations be writing Biden on suggestions for Department of Interior person?

[answered live]

Question: What about mountain lions?

[answered live]

Question: What about the co-existence with the Cougar?

[answered live]

Question: Concern–Support carnivores in ecosystems with sufficient wildlands. Do not where there is not sufficient habitat. YES Griz in Yellowstone. YES Wolves in northern MN. UNDECIDED Wolves in Colorado. NO Mountain lions in L.A.

Answer: This is a great point and a place for more dialogue in the conservation community. Should we restore carnivores to places where they may be hunted, trapped, and otherwise killed by various cruel means? Or should we perhaps wait until local human populations are more open to coexistence before we push recovery and reintroduction efforts? It’s not a question I hear explicitly addressed often but I suspect is a concern on the minds of many advocates and conservationists. A salient example of the importance of this question is where to reintroduce wolves in Colorado now that Proposition 114 passed. If we place them in the rural counties that voted against reintroduction, are we throwing wolves to the proverbial wolves (i.e., humans)? To put it another way, we need to analyze the benefits of wolf reintroduction now (e.g., ecosystem health and function, aesthetics, recreational and associated economic values) with the costs, namely the sacrifices individual wolves will have to make (i.e., loss of life and limb to hunters, poachers, and trappers)?

Question: Human population growth is THE environmental issue. More people in the world generally = less opportunity for carnivores to exist.

Answer: This is another great point, one that doesn’t get discussed enough and that many organizations are reluctant to take on given the moral quandaries to navigate. In my personal opinion, eliminating animal agriculture and addressing human population growth are the two greatest needs to addressing climate change, the biodiversity crisis, to basically save the planet. I’ve made personal decisions that reflect those values. I have chosen not to have children and eat vegan most of the time (I live in the land of delicious cheesy New Mexican food and heaven knows my self-discipline falls short of saintly). I’ve seen firsthand in my travels through Madagascar how enhancing women’s education leads to lower birthrates and empowers gender parity and biodiversity conservation. We need more of that everywhere. But how and when it’s appropriate to influence others’ very personal choices about having children is another can of worms and requires careful thought and honest conversations. Personal values, cultures, and many other factors influence how humans will feel about and respond to this issue. But let’s be brave and kind and have those conversations!

Question: What breeds of dog were you talking about that they have used or have been successful to protect cattle and sheep?

Answer: There are many dog breeds, more than I can succinctly cover here. Great Pyrenees are common livestock guardian dogs. Several Turkish breeds are increasing in popularity, including Anatolian Shepherds and closely related Kangals, as well as Akbash. Check out our resources for more info:

http://www.projectcoyote.org/mediaroom/videos/experience-different-guard-animals/

Big Dogs, Hot Fences and Fast Sheep: A Rancher’s Perspective on Predator Protection

Ranchers shift from traps to dogs to fight coyotes

Question: Could smaller-scale livestock make any difference? Ironically, we are actually also lowering our cholesterol level simultaneously!

Answer: Yes, smaller livestock operations could alleviate the negative impacts livestock have on landscapes and simplify management needed to protect carnivores and habitats. A huge challenge for ranchers is managing livestock scattered across wide landscapes, which is not uncommon in the American West and the Northern Great Lakes to some extent. Especially with drought in the West, the carrying capacity of grazing lands (i.e., the herd size recommended to avoid overgrazing) has been decreasing for many years. Thus, reducing the number of cattle in an operation will help conserve grass and water, reduce erosion, and protect habitat. Keeping livestock closer together not only makes them easier to protect from potential predation, but also means that humans catch other much more common threats that can arise, such as birthing complications, noxious weed ingestion, weather, disease, and theft.

Question: You highlight a variety of paths towards coexistence, but I just wonder if you think coexistence is really possible under our current structure of state wildlife agencies and their (perceived or real) commitment to hunters/trappers and “sustainable use” of carnivores?

[answered live]

Question: What’s the best way to get ahead of the “bad apples”? We’ve got coyotes around, becoming more visible to our neighbors, and some are voicing complaints. Best advice to get ahead in the game and promote coexistence?

A: Proactive measures are so important to avoiding conflict and the negative perceptions that are difficult to change once they’re set in someone’s mind. I recommend first living by example and be an exemplary model to your neighbors, for example by keeping potential food sources (garbage, backyard chickens, pet food) secure. Second, take opportunities to be a friendly source of information to your neighbors. Any chance you get to chat with neighbors is a potential opportunity to educate. “Have you seen that beautiful coyote in our neighborhood? …Oh no, it’s not dangerous that you saw her during the day, it’s a treat!”

Furthermore, we have specific resources on our website to help you promote coexistence as a neighborhood effort: http://www.projectcoyote.org/take-action/promote-coexistence/

We’ve got signs and flyers you can put up in community spaces, example text to post on your Next-door app or other social media, and tips on writing a short letter to the editor of your local paper to spread the word of coexistence.

Question: Would you agree that part of the struggle for coexistence is the pride many ranchers take in using old-school ways of dealing with predators, i.e., just kill them?

[answered live]

Question: I’ve heard some people react to the idea of range riders as if it is a naive/ineffective technique. Do you think evidence of its efficacy is unknown/untrusted, or are they not willing to put the time required into being out with their cattle enough?

Answer: Range riding can be quite effective so a major barrier to support for such a program is one of distrusting the evidence. When I’ve run into those arguments, some ranchers will say “I’d need 100 riders to cover my acreage” or “That might work where you’re from but not here.” This pushback speaks to the Social Identity Theory I discussed in the webinar, whereby trusted in-group members are the best spokespersons for new ideas. Distrusted others can have all the evidence as their disposable but it still may not convince skeptics. Other psychological phenomenons at play here are motivated reasoning, in which we tend to be skeptical of evidence that doesn’t align with our preconceived notions and already established worldview.

It’s also worth noting that in some cases there are legitimate logistical barriers to implementing range riders or other new proactive methods. Some ranchers are dealing with limited resources: the time spent to ride and observe cattle that could be spent fixing equipment, bailing hay, dealing with insurance companies, etc.; limited available cash reserves to hire help; or lack of knowledge about how to effectively implement a new strategy.

Q: Not a question, but wanted to raise this point. Wildlife crossings (underpasses/overpasses) are another way to promote coexistence with wildlife. It has been proven to be helpful with coyotes, wolves, bears, deer, and many others. There is a strong need for more across North America. Thank you for doing this informative presentation.

[addressed live]

Q: Beef is probably the most resource expensive protein humans eat, and its use is spreading worldwide and is really not even healthy. Do you think there is any hope of humans adapting their diet?

[answered live]

Q: The CPW Commissioners in Colorado are structured so that they are composed mostly of hunters/ranchers/outfitters. Will you be lobbying for legislation to make the CPW Commission appointments more equitable to wildlife?

A: We are currently exploring strategies and tactics to reform state wildlife agencies across North America. Almost every state suffers from Colorado’s disenfranchising and undemocratic approach to wildlife management. So we’ll be looking at legislation and other reform methods in several states in the coming years and most likely those efforts will include Colorado.

Q: Thank you for your talk. How about the human exceptionalism concept? Donna Haraway critique that a lot. So, do you think that concept is the real issue behind the success of a coexistence project?

A: I do believe that the notion of human exceptionalism is related to and often at the core of an anthropocentric worldview that can undermine coexistence initiatives. Human exceptionalism and anthropocentrism are often discussed interchangeably and both promote the idea that humans matter more than other forms of life. With such thinking, taking the life of an animal that may be inconvenient to humans is more easily justified. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my dissertation research found that anthropocentric individuals (i.e., those not ascribing intrinsic value to non-humans) were less likely to support or engage in coexistence behaviors. All that said, post-modern societies are shifting away from anthropocentrism so there’s hope! And on the individual level, if coexistence tools are made easy, accessible, and habitual, even die-hard anthropocentric folks will have fewer barriers to coexistence.

And I’ll just add that Donna Haraway is an excellent scholar and author, I highly recommend her work to anyone looking for new reading!

Question: There are successful fertility control projects happening now for deer with Botstiber Institute. Do you see this as a possible trend for wolves, coyotes, and other carnivores? It’s better than killing.

Answer: Fertility control has been implemented for deer, wild horses, and other species with the goal of controlling overall population numbers. I’m also aware of coyote sterilization to prevent hybridizing with endangered red wolves. I think sterilization of carnivores to reduce numbers would have limited success for logistical reasons. Carnivores move far and wide and it would be difficult to maintain adequately high infertility rates in the areas one might want fewer carnivores (e.g., near urban areas or high densities of livestock). Sterilized individuals may disperse or die and will be replaced by unsterilized individuals. Such a program would require more time and resources than currently seems available in most places. It’s also important to consider the moral questions around sterilizing wild animals whose raison d’être may be to raise young. If given the choice, would a carnivore rather live longer or produce more offspring?

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