Carnivore research can shape wildlife management policies

An anaesthetised Eurasian lynx that has been captured to permit the attachment of a GPS collar as part of a research project. Photo: Scandlynx.

John D C Linnell, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research discusses how using large carnivore research can be used to inform wildlife management policies in Norway

Conflicts associated with the recovery of populations of wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines in Norway during the last 30 years have motivated intensive research projects. The results have led to an in-depth understanding of many aspects of these species ecology’s, and of the conflicts they cause with people. The extent to which these results have influenced policy sheds a lot of light on the complexity of the science – policy interface.

The recovery of large carnivores to Norway, in recent years can be viewed as a success for conservation. However, it has also been associated with very many conflicts, especially associated with the killing of sheep and domestic reindeer.

To better address these conflicts there has been a massive investment in research on large carnivores since the mid 1990’s, in both Norway and neighbouring Sweden. A large part of this has focused on the ecology of these species. One of the main tools used has been to equip individuals with collars carrying a GPS unit which allows researchers to follow their movements. This makes it possible to study how it lives, and dies, how much it moves, which habitats it lives in, when it reproduces, how it interacts with other species, and what it eats. Another powerful method in the modern wildlife researcher’s tool-kit is to extract DNA from hair or scats. If scats are collected over many years and large areas it is also possible to follow the movement, family relationships and survival of these animals. We are also increasingly using automatic camera-traps. These cameras can now work for months at a time without supervision. For lynx this method is especially useful as individuals can be recognised from their coat patterns.

During the last 20 years we, and our colleagues in Sweden, have deployed these methods across large parts of Scandinavia, from the alpine tundra of the north, through the boreal coniferous forests to the more urbanised mixed forest-farmland areas around the southern cities. The result of this massive research effort has been an explosion of knowledge about these secretive and previously poorly understood animals. We now have insights into how they live their lives, moving across enormous areas of forest and tundra, and navigating the diversity of human activities and structures that dominate all landscapes, even in Scandinavia. A key finding has been that that the modern Scandinavian landscape constitutes potential habitat for these species despite the intensity of human land-uses like forestry, hunting and livestock grazing. This research effort has made it possible to not only produce applied knowledge for wildlife management, but also to address many fundamental ecological and evolutionary questions. Over 600 scientific papers have been produced during the last 20 years documenting many of the smallest details of these species’ otherwise secret lives! Some of these articles have even appeared in top journals like Nature and Science.

Social science methods have also been used to understand the deeper nature of the conflicts which they cause. These studies have revealed how rural people’s reactions to the return of these species are very mixed. In many ways the large carnivores have become symbols (and scapegoats) for a range of other underlying social and economic issues that are bringing unwanted change to rural lives and livelihoods.

The motivation for initiating this research was to help improve their management and reduce conflicts, so it is important to consider how the research has been used to inform policy. One of the greatest successes has been in using research results to design effective monitoring systems so that we now have an incredible level of detailed knowledge about how the populations develop over time, and how they respond to different management measures. Research results have been used to set more realistic levels of compensation payments for livestock that are lost while grazing during summer. Results have also been used to justify changes in the reindeer herding system that should both increase its sustainability and lower losses to predators. However, much less progress has been made in adapting modes of sheep husbandry to production systems that are compatible with the presence of large carnivores. As a result, Norway practices exceptionally restrictive policies (compared to all other European countries) concerning how many large carnivores should be permitted to live in the country. In essence, the system continues to focus most of its efforts on managing the predators rather than managing the livestock.

This underlines several aspects related to integrating science into policy. Firstly, it shows how poorly the different sectors (in this case environment and agriculture) coordinate their policies. Secondly, it illustrates how conserving controversial wildlife species can come into conflict with some of the economic interests and fundamental values, held by rural people who are being asked to share their landscape with these predators. This creates what is called a “wicked problem” in wildlife management, where conflicts are so fundamental that it may be impossible to find consensus solutions. Our insights into the nature of conflicts would never have been possible without combining both natural science and social science perspectives. Thirdly, it reveals the clear limits to how far science can be integrated into policy. Science can be used to inform the public and decision makers about the state of the situation on the ground and the outcome of alternative polices. But when it comes to it, making decisions about conservation goal, it is a political decision concerning many competing interests, which will be prioritised. Therefore, the extent to which large carnivores will be able to return to large parts of Norway (and Europe) will be limited by the vagaries of public opinion and political power struggles than by the ecological potential, which is considerable.

Further information

Scandinavian Lynx Project

Camera trapping in Norway

Scandinavian Wolf Project

Scandinavian Brown Bear Project

Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe

European Commissions Large Carnivore Initiative

John Linnell

Senior Researcher

Norwegian Institute for Nature Research – NINA

+47 73 80 14 00

Please note: this is a commercial profile


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