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Understanding Coexistence

The scientific journal Frontiers in Conservation Science has released a series of 13 new papers under the research topic “Understanding Coexistence with Wildlife.” I’m not going to review each paper, but will touch on a few that may be of interest in the American West.

Conflict is integral to human-wildlife coexistence, by Oxford’s Catherine M. Hill, is an opinion piece that argues against the current trend of trying to reframe “conflicts” as breakdowns in “coexistence.” Hill writes: “I propose that we should consider conflict as one aspect or even a necessary condition of human-wildlife coexistence. Additionally, we should be wary of adopting a dualistic model of ‘conflict’ to ‘coexistence,’ or a continuum perspective, because neither framework adequately represents the complex nature of human-wildlife interactions, which are multifaceted, dynamic and often grounded in time and place.”

Simon Pooley’s essay, Coexistence for Whom? sets the stage for many of the other papers and is well worth a complete read. Pooley poses ethical and conceptual questions around who coexistence is for, who it affects, and who is to make it happen. He notes that even the concept of coexistence is poorly defined, and the term “is very much in play conceptually, with no fixed theory, definitions or principles—or even agreement that these would be useful ….”

Pooley asserts: “Coexistence does not imply an absence of conflict, but rather a sustainable though dynamic state of coexistence where inevitable negative interactions are effectively governed in socially legitimate ways. That is, agreed upon laws will play a part in regulating interactions. However, ideally coexistence ought to be (wherever possible) mutually agreed upon and facilitated, rather than enforced. Humans as well as wild animals should have agency and reasonable freedom to choose how to behave in shared landscapes.”

Ranchers’ Perspectives on Participating in Non-lethal Wolf-Livestock Coexistence Strategies summarizes interviews with 45 ranchers in Washington about conflict mitigation and their participation (or lack thereof) with a state-led program. This was a good summary of the situation in that state, and much would apply in other western states.

The paper’s abstract noted “Negative attitudes toward wolf recovery included fear of wolves and perceived damage that wolves inflict on rural lives and livelihoods.” I cringe when I see papers claiming a “fear of wolves” because I’ve yet to meet a rancher that is afraid of wolves, but most ranchers are fearful of the damages that wolves can inflict on their livestock and livelihoods.

More than just no conflict: examining the two sides of the coexistence coin, is an opinion essay by Saloni Bhatia of India that applies peace theory to understand human-wildlife coexistence. The coexistence spectrum ranges from manifested intolerance on one end, to stewardship on the other, and the author notes “coexistence is a fragile and dynamic state that requires constant work.”

From Conflict to Conviviality? Transforming Human-Bear Relations in Bulgaria was interesting as it purports to contribute to the transformation of human-wildlife relations from conflict to coexistence. While the paper was interesting, it was also weird, and perhaps the most revealing implications are the things that were not mentioned.

Written by Svetoslava Toncheva, a Buglarian specialist in ethnology and folklore, along with a social sciences professor from the Netherlands, Robert Fletcher, the paper claims to compare two cases in rural Bulgaria with different degrees of conflict and coexistence. But this paper simply refers to a previous article as the first case study – one in which “people and bears have learned to cohabitate in relative harmony.” So you have to go and find the other paper to fully comprehend this paper’s analysis.

Something bugged me while I was reading: all of the scientific information about bears relied exclusively on an interview with one local ecologist by the name of Julian Perry. The authors noted “While research concerning brown bears has also been conducted elsewhere in the country by others (see e.g., Gavrilov et al., 2015; Todorov et al., 2020), as our focus is on the behavior of bears in the two study sites specifically we have not included this in our analysis.”

Why – in a scientific paper – rely only on the work of Julian Perry, who I cannot find has any published research on bears? The authors note that Perry is the “founder of the non-governmental organization Wild Rodopi, where he works on the Rodopi Bear Project aimed at conservation of the species. In this context, since 2010 he has been conducting a long-term study into the ecology and ethology of brown bears in the Yagodina and Arda regions, and has developed a specific educational tourism programme focused on bear conservation around the village of Yagodina.”

What the authors didn’t disclose is the connection between one of the authors and the ecologist Perry. Author Toncheva is a “team member” of Perry’s Wild Rodopi, although it is not clear on the organization’s website if Toncheva is a paid staffer of this organization. And while the paper mentions that ecologist Perry has developed an “educational tourism program focused on bear conservation,” the paper does not mention that this program falls under the umbrella of Perry’s Bulgarian eco-tourism company, Balkan Trek, “one of the leading eco-tourism operators in Bulgaria.”

The week-long bear watching trips include evening trips to a “specially constructed bear hide” to watch while bears come to eat corn that is provided in feeders. This is part of the case study that the authors claim is where bears and people have learned to live in harmony: feeding bears for tourists to pay to see.

The paper has other gaping holes and contradictions, but it’s hard to get past the basic premise that feeding bears creates harmony – a direct contradiction to the “fed bear is a dead bear” messaging imparted by bear experts for decades.

The paper quotes ecologist Perry as advising against hazing bears away from humans, “If bears learn that humans are not a threat and leave them alone, then the bears will ignore and avoid humans and get on with their lives, the same way as bears try to avoid and ignore other bears.”

Yet elsewhere the paper mentions a brown bear sow and her cubs coming into the village – contradicting the notion of bears trying to avoid people.

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