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The success of any research project depends on its ability to bring results to the marketplace.
Using science to inform large carnivore policy
The recovery of populations of wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines in Europe over the past 50 years has been overwhelmingly successful, but it has come at the price of increased conflicts of interest with the people living alongside them. John Linnell of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research has been part of a large pan-European research effort to gain a deeper insight into these conflicts, int the hope that more effective methods for resolving them can be constructed..
Until the 1960s, Norway, like many other European countries, spent a lot of effort trying to exterminate its native large carnivores. The environmental movement that followed caused a sharp U-turn in this policy, and the recovery of populations of wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines since then has been one of the great success stories of European conservation legislation.
However, the reality for people sharing a landscape with large carnivores has been high levels of conflict. The original motivation for killing these animals still exists in many areas, the most obvious being that they pose a threat to domestic livestock. As a consequence, since the early 1990s Norway has been investing in research projects that investigate the ecology of large carnivores and the conflicts they cause with people.
Fieldwork has been a constant since the beginning of the funding push, with data being fed directly into wildlife management institutions to answer immediate questions and also being used as a platform to generate scientific knowledge. As John Linnell of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research explains, the focus has been perpetually evolving: “In the early years, we were essentially describing the basic natural history of these animals and assessing general attitudes such as “do people like these animals?” As time has gone by the work has become more focused, with our most recent work analysing whether the scientific knowledge produced is actually influencing policy decisions.”
The switch of focus towards studying policy has been partly provoked by the relative stasis in levels of conflict between humans and large carnivores over the past few decades. Understanding the ecology of the animals has improved immensely, as has understanding the economic and social dimensions of the conflicts that occur. This knowledge has been presented to policymakers in the form of clear recommendations, yet the underlying issues remain unchanged. “The debates that we hear being played out by the Norwegian media and parliament regarding issues such as livestock predation are almost identical to those from twenty years ago,” says Linnell. “There is certainly a sense of déjà vu in this respect, so we are now increasing our focus on assessing what works in terms of policy and how we can encourage this to be implemented.”
The challenges faced by policymakers are no better illustrated than by the state of sheep farming in modern Norway. In the 1940s when levels of carnivores were decreasing towards the extinction point, the prevalent husbandry system allowed sheep free reign over the mountains and forests throughout the summer, unsupervised and unfenced. This was effective until predator populations rose again. Sheep are now being killed frequently by large carnivores and the farmers are responding by lobbying for the widespread use of lethal control and to reduce population recovery goals. A change in sheep husbandry methods is the only viable solution to this deadlock, but although the recommendation has been given repeatedly, it has not led to a large-scale institutional change in the system.
In contrast with the policies on carnivores are the hunting systems that have been established regarding Norway’s ungulates, which represent an excellent example of sustainable use of a natural resource brought about by a strong relationship between research and wildlife management. The difference is, Linnell believes, how people perceive the two groups of animals “Very few people in Norway disagree with the fundamental idea that moose and deer belong in the landscape and have a place in the modern world,” he explains, “and this is despite the conflicts they cause with forestry and through vehicle collisions.“ Unfortunately the same cannot be said of large carnivores. There are large, vocal stakeholder groups who wholeheartedly oppose the premise that these animals should ever have been allowed to regain a foothold in the wild. These kinds of polarised and institutionalised political differences make policy decision making exceedingly difficult.”
Many different approaches beyond the introduction of practical changes to livestock husbandry are needed to address these conflicts. Recognising the intrinsic political nature of the issue implies that the solutions must also be political in nature. Norway has a long tradition of investing in fostering dialogue between stakeholders. At a European level the EC has followed suit and invested considerable resources in engaging with stakeholders during the last 2-3 years, included commissioning summaries of the status of large carnivores, overviews of their management, reviews of conflicts and a scoping of potential methods to reduce conflicts. It has also launched its own stakeholder platform to serve as Europe-wide forum for discussion of the issues. While it is unlikely that such forums will unify the diverse goals that the different stakeholder groups have, it should improve the interactions between them and identify areas of common ground for collaborative work. Sadly, the more mature and nuanced discussions that occur in these forums do not always influence the more heated discussions played out at a local level or in the media.
The situation in Norway remains difficult, with conflicts of interest on many levels meaning that resolution will likely come incrementally in the long term rather than through sweeping legislation. Positives aspects can be taken from the situation, however, such as the high level of science that has been produced over the years. “The original motivation for funding our work has always been the issue of conflict reduction and wildlife management, but co-funding from the Research Council of Norway has allowed us to use the same data for basic science, the result of which is that the wildlife species we have been working on are now some of the most studied mammal species anywhere in the world,” says Linnell. “We have been lucky in this respect, and for me it highlights the idea that there is no contradiction between doing relevant science and doing excellent science. In fact, we have begun to cultivate a research culture based around the idea of the ‘excellence of relevance’.”
Published: Monday, 22nd August 2016