In a human dominated landscape, wild animals often suffer and disappear. Areas can be repopulated with native species, but the support of the people affected by wildlife management programs is key to their success.
Stephen Decker's research specialty in integrated resource and environmental management focuses on the human dimensions of wildlife management. "My research work isn't about getting the public to say 'yes.' It's about responsible and informed wildlife management and the importance of integrating information on stakeholder perceptions, attitudes, values, and levels of support or opposition with natural science information to better inform education efforts and decision and policy making," said Prof. Decker.
Wildlife management in North America has evolved over time. Before the 1960s, much of the focus was on protecting game animals and stakeholder consultation rarely extended beyond hunters. But approaches are changing and there's a shift to gain broader stakeholder input into policy making as well as recognition of the importance of managing for a greater diversity of animals than just game species in an ecosystem.
Prof. Decker said good wildlife biology information is essential for successful wildlife management but it's becoming more broadly accepted that social science input is equally important. "For some management agencies, effectively addressing the public factor presents considerable challenges due to a lack of capacity in human dimensions research approaches," he said. In a recent project, Prof. Decker, along with Conor Edwards, a student in Grenfell's master of arts in environmental policy program studied the public attitudes regarding the re-introduction of free-ranging European bison in the Netherlands. The project has three goals: conservation of the bison; the rewilding of the Veluwe area of the Netherlands; and supporting conservation efforts and local tourism by giving visitors opportunities to view wildlife.
The European bison has been hunted to near-extinction and pushed out of its habitat by human development. There are only 2,500 European bison left in the world and their absence changes the local ecosystem drastically. Prof. Decker explained that while all species are important, some are more important than others. These are referred to as keystone species and when they're removed from an ecosystem, the other wildlife is affected. For example, bison roll around in the dirt to deter flies and shed tufts of molted fur, leaving a depression in the ground that fills with water and provides a habitat for insects, which birds eat. When bison are removed from their native habitat, there is a cascade of impacts.
The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Western Europe and wild bison are outside of living memory for most residents. Fear of the unknown his has created concerns and misunderstandings about the rewilding program. Local residents, nature conservation groups, local politicians, policy makers, and associations representing farmers, hunters and tourism businesses are all affected by the rewilding program. "Our work was to better understand concerns, try to get to the root of the fears about bringing the bison back, and to determine whether or not those who frequent the area supported the reintroduction," said Prof. Decker.
Prof. Decker and Mr. Edwards surveyed those residents utilizing the proposed reintroduction area to uncover their opinions, fears, and acceptance of the proposed re-introduction of the bison. The survey built upon similar research carried out by Prof. Decker in Germany in order to collect comparative data. "In some cases there's an incredible passion for nature conservation in human-dominated landscapes. We recorded high levels of support for the reintroduction project in the Netherlands. With so many environmental problems facing the world, it's uplifting and heartening to see that," said Prof. Decker.
Closer to home, Prof. Decker's doctoral research is again applying the lens of integrated resource and environmental management but in this case to examine management responses to the significant declines in caribou populations in Newfoundland and Labrador. Given the sometimes-contentions wildlife management issues facing provincial wildlife managers, Prof. Decker said his research is relevant to the province and he very much enjoys the many opportunities he has to engage in local real-world wildlife management challenges.
Grenfell Campus Start-up Grant
Large Herbivore Initiative
Federal Agency for Nature Conservancy (Germany)
Zoological Geselischaft Frankfurt
ABOUT FOR THE RECORD:
the semester we will highlight some of the interesting research taking
place at Grenfell Campus. The articles will appear here and will be
compiled on the research webpage.
Article prepared by Alli Johnston