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Pinchot focus areas:

Climate & Energy
Biodiversity Conservation and Wildlife Management in the Anthropocene
R. Patrick Bixler

Reconsidering Strategies of the Anthropocene
In the Anthropocene epoch, “The Age of Man,” everything on earth is influenced by human actions, either by direct contact such as clearing forests for agriculture or indirectly through climate change or other global system effects. We’ve been thinking, talking, and writing a lot about the Anthropocene at the Pinchot Institute lately because in this new era of planetary change we are being forced to reconsider the contours of forest conservation and management. This includes a new role for humankind: from a species that had to adapt to changes in their natural environment to one that must be a steward of other species as we drive global change. Anthropocene stewardship, now that has an interesting ring to it. But what guides this thinking?

The Gambel's quail is particularly resilient to desert and drought conditions, adapting its food choices to the variabilityRecently, at a Resilience Alliance1 conference in Montpellier, France, C.S. (Buzz) Holling2 was reflecting on his early field studies and his search for an empirical basis to his theory of resilience. He recalled moments and months of uncertain anticipation as he watched, and waited. His manuscript, “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems,” was already written (Holling 1973) and the postage paid, just waiting for validation before he mailed it off to the editors. Finally, the evidence he was waiting for came and resilience theory was born. Soon after publication, hundreds and then thousands of other researchers studying other systems provided further evidence to support the theoretical model of ecosystem resilience and regime shifts.

Interestingly, while Buzz was patiently waiting for the appropriate time to mail off his manuscript, the 93rd United States Congress was debating a landmark environmental law that would change the ways that public lands were managed for generations to come. In 1973, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act (Public Law 93–205). This act, as amended, recognizes threatened and endangered species of animals and plants, protects habitat of listed species from destruction by federal actions, specifies interagency cooperation, and requires preparation of recovery plans and monitoring of species awaiting listing and those recently recovered.

These two ideas—one from a unique blend of systems and ecological science and the other a crowning achievement of the environmental movement—coexisted at precisely the same time. Yet, these are two different ways of viewing the behavior of systems. On the one hand, individuals die, populations disappear, and species become extinct. It has been noted that the rate of species extinction in the Anthropocene will rival all previous mass extinctions, with as many of 30% of all species going extinct over the next four decades and 75% of mammals being extinct in 300 years (Barnowsky et al. 2011). On the other hand, it is not so much the presence or absence of species that matters, but rather the resiliency of a system to sustain a desired structure and function in the face of disturbance and ongoing evolution and change.

These two ideas, while not mutually exclusive, derive from different philosophies regarding nature. What does this mean for biodiversity conservation and wildlife management in the Anthropocene?

Great strides have been made both globally and domestically in biodiversity conservation and wildlife management since the passage of the Endangered Species Act just over 40 years ago. However, our understanding of what it means to “preserve” and “protect” species and habitat is undergoing a transition in this new epoch. Traditional wildlife and biodiversity conservation strategies have relied heavily on the establishment of reserves and other protected areas to conserve habitat, but as climate changes, optimal habitat zones are shifting to different places on the landscape.

This presents a challenge to biodiversity conservation and wildlife management because both plant and animal species are prompted to follow the climate-driven movement of the ecosystems and habitats in which they evolved (Hannah et al. 2002). As Sample (2014) summarizes in the introduction to Forest Conservation and Management in the Anthropocene, ecological communities disassemble as species capable of migrating do so, and those that are not remain behind. Those that can migrate must traverse landscapes that in earlier epochs were not filled with highways, cities, farms, and other manifestations of a rapidly expanding human population that is relatively new on the geologic time scale. Designated parks, refuges, reserves, and other traditional approaches to protecting habitat are still important (Caro et al. 2011), but may be less effective when the species themselves are on the move (Kareiva et al. 2011). This is prompting biologists, resource management professionals, and policymakers to consider new approaches to conservation planning (Anderson and Ferree 2010), and strategies focused on large landscapes—vast areas that stretch from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon, or from the southern Appalachians to Labrador. These immense landscapes encompass cities, towns, and agricultural working lands, as well as a mosaic of public and private forests that are all managed for different purposes and objectives. For these landscape- scale conservation strategies to be environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable—and politically possible—new governance models must be developed to facilitate an unprecedented level of communication, coordination, cooperation, and collaboration (Bixler 2014; Kareiva et al. 2012).

Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene

Multi-stakeholder engagement across public and private boundaries is not only necessary, but increasingly seen as crucial to building resilience and protecting species. Local ecological knowledge must blend with science, and knowledge regarding wildlife and biodiversity must be connected to conservation action. My own understandings and reflections on wildlife management emerge from researching the conservation of mountain caribou in British Columbia and grizzly bears in Montana. These highly migratory and charismatic species illustrate well the complexities of biodiversity conservation in the Anthropocene. In the following, I’ll draw on some of the contributions from our esteemed colleagues in “Forest Conservation and Management in the Anthropocene” (Sample and Bixler 2014) and take these issues and ideas to the ground, so to speak, elaborating on my own engagement and research working with communities and wildlife management.

Conservation Theory and Policy in the Anthropocene

Wilderness, Protected Areas, and Landscape Conservation

As Tim Caro and his colleagues (2014) note, a protected area—“an area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means”—can range from strict nature reserves to those that allow sustainable use of natural resources. From a biological standpoint, the effectiveness of protected areas as a conservation tool depends on their ability to incorporate biodiversity (e.g., Rodrigues et al. 2004) and to buffer plant and animal populations against anthropogenic forces (e.g., Bruner et al. 2001). Most appraisals generally suggest that protected areas are successful in their goal of biodiversity conservation when compared to areas with no formal protection. Nonetheless, plant and animal populations inside protected areas are not immune to anthropogenic forces and expanding, buffering, and connecting existing reserves may be very important.

Land use descriptions across large landscapes affect burrowing owl habitatGary Tabor, Anne Carlson, and Travis Belote (2014) describe this as large landscape conservation, a science-based response to increasing large-scale habitat fragmentation and degradation that advances the concepts of ecological integrity, ecological connectivity, and wildlife corridors. Large landscape conservation approaches have recently been embraced as a strategy to facilitate the adaptation of biodiversity to the impacts of climate change. In one sense, large landscape conservation is the evolution of the “beyond parks” conservation approach (Minteer and Miller 2011) in which species and ecological processes cannot be satisfactorily sustained within most circumscribed protected landscape parcels. Corridors and linkages that can connect habitat across several degrees of latitude are becoming critically important to facilitate the emigration of some plant and animal species and the immigration of others. However, this still leaves the question of whether something can be done to minimize the emigration of species from protected area reserves, and the dismantling of existing ecological communities. Some species within a given ecological community are able to use their mobility to migrate while others are left behind, thus disassembling existing communities of interdependent species (Schmitz and Trainor 2014).

At the same time, a region will experience the immigration of mobile species from elsewhere, developing species assemblages that may never have existed before. How to regard these “novel ecosystems” is a topic of considerable ongoing debate among conservation biologists. From one perspective, many of these novel ecosystems are highly biologically productive and may also exhibit a high level of species diversity, so they may represent a significant biodiversity resource in themselves. In any case, they are inevitable and will develop with or without biologists’ consent.

Anderson and Johnson (2014) illustrate another strategy, resilient sites, that defines biological and geological characteristics that can be resistant to the influence of climate change and hold their ecological communities intact. These sites tend to have highly specific characteristics of geology, soils, and topography. Identifying, mapping, and then protecting a sufficient number of these resilient sites across large landscapes can be an important component in a comprehensive, portfolio approach to biodiversity conservation and wildlife management in the Anthropocene.

Cross-Boundary and Multi-Stakeholder Conservation
There are significant additional challenges associated with actually implementing a cross-boundary conservation and management strategy on large landscapes, particularly when they are predominantly characterized by private ownership and comprised of many small tracts. These tracts are typically managed for objectives as diverse as the private owners themselves, who may or may not understand or share a commitment to biodiversity conservation. Large landscape conservation strategies can be applied to help achieve biodiversity conservation objectives in regions characterized by mixed public-private or predominantly private ownerships.

Joseph McCauley (2014) describes an innovative approach successfully pioneered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) on the Silvio O. Conte Engaging communities in biodiversity conservation can lead to effective and sustainable solutionsNational Fish and Wildlife Refuge following its designation by special legislation in 1991. Unlike traditional wildlife refuges at the time, the Silvio Conte encompassed large areas of land that were not directly owned or managed by the FWS—in fact, the entire 7.1 million acres in the Connecticut River watershed, across four states. The model was motivated by the understanding that the important wildlife and aquatic species in this watershed could never be adequately protected by the FWS working only on the agency’s small reserves. It is a model based on outreach to other landowners in the region, facilitating local meetings in which the FWS provided spatial information about key habitat they had mapped throughout the watershed, and about land management practices that could maintain or enhance these habitat values. Landowner actions were voluntary, not done as a matter of law or regulation, and a large number of landowners stepped forward to learn more about how they could protect habitat values that happened to occur on their land. Wildlife refuges in other regions have now adopted this watershed- based large landscape conservation model, and the concept is at the heart of the FWS strategy for wildlife and fish habitat conservation in response to climate change. As climate adaptation strategies such as the identification and mapping of ‘resilient sites’ are developed, especially in eastern regions of the US where forests are primarily in private ownership, outreach models such as that developed on the Silvio Conte Refuge could become critically important to translating the knowledge about where resilient sites are located to actually achieving their conservation and protection, through actions that can only be taken through communication, collaboration, and cooperation with the individuals who actually own the land.

Federal Policy Responses
Federal policy around wildlife management and biodiversity conservation has tuned in to these trends as well. In recent years within the US, various government-led large landscape responses have come to the fore. As Tabor et al. (2014) remark one of the more notable efforts was the 2008 Western Governors’ Association initiative on crucial wildlife habitat and wildlife corridors, initiated in response to large scale energy planning and development. All 17 western states within the Western Governors’ Association unanimously agreed on a shared policy framework to address the scale and scope of habitat and wildlife movement areas across their jurisdictions in the face of potential conflicts with planned development. This was a milestone event as states recognized the need to conserve their resources at a regional scale through interstate collaboration. Soon thereafter, in 2010, the US Department of the Interior embraced a new landscape partnership program, the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, which designated 22 large scale cooperative landscape management areas across the nation and adjoining transboundary regions in Canada and Mexico as part of a department-wide coordinated adaptation response to climate change. At the same time, the All Lands Initiative and the US Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program were established to more effectively address conflicts in natural resource management planning and development at large scales.

The Blackfoot Challenge works to sustain landscapes and livelihoods in the Blackfoot Valley of MontanaMore specifically to the point of wildlife, as Mark Shaffer (2014) discusses, the federal government recently undertook a major initiative to develop the National Fish,Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy (NFWPCAS 2012). In 2009 Congress requested that the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) develop a national strategy to “...assist fish, wildlife, plants, and related ecological processes in becoming more resilient, adapting to, and surviving the impacts of climate change” (CEQ/USDOI 2009). As DOI’s wildlife bureau, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) took the lead in structuring a process to fulfill this request. Because of the complementary nature of US wildlife law, the FWS invited the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and state wildlife agencies to co-lead the effort. Ultimately, a steering committee was formed that included representatives from 15 federal agencies, five state fish and wildlife agency directors, and leaders of two inter-tribal natural resource commissions.

The NFWPCAS is an unprecedented effort by all levels of government that have authority or responsibility for wildlife in the United States to work together collaboratively to identify what needs be done in the Anthropocene epoch. It was developed by teams of managers, researchers, and policy experts drawn from federal, state, and tribal agencies organized around major ecosystem types. The strategy identifies seven major goals that must be achieved to give wildlife the best chance of surviving the projected impacts of current and anticipated future climate change. Numerous strategies (23) and actions (100+) are identified that are essential for achieving these goals.

All of the seven major goals identified in the NFWPCAS are things that the wildlife management community already does (e.g., conserve habitat, manage species and habitats, enhance management capacity, etc.). What will be new, and what the NFWPCAS tries to illustrate, is that these things will need to be done in new ways, or in new places, or at new times, or in new combinations for conservation to be effective. Species stewardship in the Anthropocene must embrace four broad themes discussed in the NFWPCAS:
  • Be Inclusive and Collaborative. Climate change is so pervasive, and its impacts potentially so far-reaching, that no single agency, no single level of government, indeed no single sector will be able to mount an effective response on its own. All affected agencies and interests need to be at the table working collaboratively to be effective.
  • Think, Plan, and Act at the Right Scale. The days of believing that a single set of best management practices universally applied will automatically lead to a biologically functional landscape are over. Different agencies and organizations work at different scales. Entities that operate at the local scale need to do so in the context of the broader physical, biological, and institutional landscape of which they are a part. Entities that operate at the national or regional scale need to be mindful of the needs, realities, and differences of the many landscapes in which they operate.
  • Integrate Across Sectors. A corollary of being inclusive within the conservation sector is to also be inclusive of other sectors. Much of what governs the fate of wildlife is not the actions or inactions of the wildlife management community, but actions by other sectors that affect the natural world (e.g., agriculture, transportation, energy development, construction, etc.). Starting an adaptation planning process by including everyone and everything may be too large a burden for any one sector to bear, but as each sector develops a working understanding of its needs relative to adaptation, it needs to reach out to the other sectors relevant to its interests to identify commonalities, synergies, conflicts, and resolutions.
  • Engage, Communicate, and Act. The effects of climate change on species are beginning to be readily apparent. Because projections of future conditions and impacts come with great uncertainty it is tempting to wait until more is known and the models improved so there is less uncertainty before we act. Unfortunately, like many large systems, Earth’s climate has great inertia, and once change is entrained it will not be quickly or easily restrained. There is unequivocal evidence that the climate is changing, that the underlying cause is the growing accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere resulting from human activity, and that there is no plausible institutional or policy framework in place to restrain additional GHG emissions which will increase the impacts on wildlife. Species are already responding; it is time for the wildlife management community to engage, communicate, and act on what we do know, even if the rates and patterns of change and the future status of species and communities remain uncertain.


Local Realities: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Redefining Problems, Transforming Practices, and Learning to Live with Grizzlies3

Cross-boundary collaboration means reaching across fence linesI’m in Ovando, Montana (population 71) about to enter Trixie’s Antler Saloon for an annual meeting of local ranchers. They spend a lot of time engaged in discussions of grizzly bears and wolves and the management and conservation of those once endangered species. By doing so, this local group has developed innovative solutions to complex challenges. I know these ranchers, but I’m always hesitant to start talking about landscape conservation, the Anthropocene, the Endangered Species Act, resilience, and the like. Especially over a beer at Trixie’s. The residents of this part of Montana, just south of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, have known endangered species since long before the adoption of the eponymous act, and have learned to live with first the grizzly bear, and now wolves. When given opportunities, they’ve been incredibly innovative in their approaches to species stewardship.

Grizzly bears don’t recognize the human demarcated boundaries that we as societies have constructed. The political (counties, municipalities), administrative and managerial (USFS, BLM, NPS, etc.), and the institutional boundaries that shape our actions are not recognizable to a grizzly. They move across the landscape in search of suitable habitat in disregard of these boundaries. Interestingly though, by doing so, grizzly bears have served as a social catalyst for networks of actors to communicate with each other across these very same socially constructed boundaries. Here in the Blackfoot Valley of Montana, and beyond, grizzly bear conservation has connected local projects to a broader sense of the landscape. That is, local level action and habitat conservation is linked to landscape-scale science assessment and conservation planning.

In many ways, grizzly bears are the iconic North American species for ecological connectivity and connectivity conservation. Grizzlies have become the symbol of ecological connectivity and drivers of the push to think at the landscape scale (Bixler 2014). Grizzly bear habitat corridors that link ‘islands’ have been extensively mapped and are valuable and necessary conservation tools; scientists are increasingly looking to identify land that connects big wild areas, keeping in mind where species are expected to move and persist as the climate changes.

Grizzlies once roamed half of North America: from Alaska to Mexico, from California to Kansas, they hunted and foraged a landscape free of fences, highways, and men with guns. The native range of grizzly bears has contracted in the past century and a half because of human-caused mortality, habitat loss, and population fragmentation. In the lower 48 states, 98% of their range has been lost, and grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region have been isolated from northern populations for close to a century. A significant threat to grizzly bear population viability is anthropogenic mortality. One study tracked 388 radio-collared grizzly bears and found that people killed 77–85% of the 99 grizzly bears known or suspected to have died while radio-collared (Wilson et al. 2014). Half of those 99 grizzly bears were killed for being too close to human habitation (while the other half was permitted hunting and legal harvesting).

Often, private lands in valley bottoms and foothills adjacent to grizzly bear habitat on public lands are problematic zones, where conflicts or incidents include bears killing livestock, destroying beehives, foraging for garbage close to homes, or, in rare cases, threatening human safety (Wilson et al. 2014). Repeated incidents typically lead to more severe conflict, habituation, and eventually to removal of the bear through trapping, relocation, or killing.

As grizzly bears re-expand their range onto private lands (the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks suggests grizzly bear populations have grown at approximately 3 percent per year since population trend monitoring began in 2004), the chances for conflicts or incidents and anthropogenic mortality of grizzlies increase significantly. As discussed earlier, part of biodiversity conservation and wildlife management in the Anthropocene will require not only local stakeholder engagement, but also local innovations. This is precisely what happened in Ovando.

Grizzlies have become a symbol of ecological connectivity in North AmericaThe local community-based conservation group there, the Blackfoot Challenge, brought together the rural landowners, wildlife agencies, and conservation groups to determine exactly what the problem was and how best to address it. Through a series of meetings like the one I witnessed at Trixie’s, the Blackfoot Challenge sussed out as many definitions of the “problem” as there were bears in the area. As Wilson et al. (2014) reflect: some people felt that there were simply too many bears, some celebrated new grizzly bear activity, some defined the problem as primarily one of risk to human safety, and some linked the increased grizzly activity to an erosion of personal rights and freedoms exacerbated by the regulatory burdens of the Endangered Species Act.

Through a process of authentically engaging key stakeholders, which officially began in 2002, the Blackfoot Challenge implemented a participatory GIS program that mapped land use practices, bear attractants, and other relevant features and took that information back to the community to collectively re-frame the problem. Recognizing that the traditional practice of dumping dead livestock carcasses in “bone yards” was attracting bears onto ranches and driving much of the human-grizzly conflict, the Blackfoot Challenge started a carcass removal program. In the past three years, an average of 633 carcasses were removed annually, and the program now engages nearly 80 ranches covering more than 600,000 ha. In the Blackfoot watershed from 2003 to 2009, grizzly bear-human conflicts decreased 93 percent.

By clearly and accurately identifying the underlying problem, local people working with state and federal agencies found solutions. And by finding solutions, they are increasing their social connectivity across the landscape, helping other landowners in Alberta,Wyoming, and other places in Montana (Bixler and Taylor 2012), and now conservation practitioners are talking about it in the High Divide region around Salmon, Idaho.

Working Towards Integrating Science and Local Practices: The Challenge of Caribou Conservation4
Moving across the International Boundary of the 49th parallel, mountain caribou conservation in British Columbia helps highlight one of the key lessons learned from grizzly bear conservation in Montana: that species conservation and wildlife management in the Anthropocene must utilize local knowledge and community practices. Scientific understanding, while a critical ingredient, is no longer independently sufficient to solve these conservation challenges.

Mountain caribou conservation illustrates the social and ecological complexity of wildlife management in the AnthropoceneIn the upper Columbia River Basin, wedged between the Columbia and Kootenay Mountains, the population of mountain caribou (the arboreal lichen feeding ecotype of woodland caribou known scientifically as Rangifer tarandus caribou) has persistently declined in spite of a robust understanding of the species’ ecological dynamics. In fact, it is one of the most rigorously documented examples of the negative effect of anthropogenic disturbances on the dynamics of an endangered species. Since the early 1980s, more than 550 individual caribou have been captured and fitted with VHF telemetry or GPS collars (roughly one-third of the approximately 1600 remaining individuals), and through this research, recovery strategies have been developed based on habitat requirements for mountain caribou at multiple spatial scales. Recommendations usually involve protecting remaining suitable habitat from logging, implementing predator control (either lethal or nonlethal), as well as control of alternate prey species (achieved mostly by increasing hunting quotas). However, populations continue to decline not from lack of scientific understanding, but rather an inability to capture a broad range of stakeholders and human motivations for engaging in conservation.

In my time working with communities and groups there, I found that local stakeholders very often constructed a variety of competing narratives to explain the decline of mountain caribou. These narratives reflected the multifaceted nature of relationships between these people, the caribou and the landscape. Moreover, these local explanations illustrate the ways that people combine multiple types of expertise, such as technical information and personal experience. Developing conservation strategies that utilize both types of knowledge systems will be necessary in the Anthropocene.

We must develop and deploy multiple and intersecting conservation strategies in the Anthropocene, and providing the decision-making space for local communities to innovate policies and practices is a powerful venue to do so. This is evident in the Blackfoot, but other landscapes such as the upper Columbia, are ripe for similar locally driven solutions to large-scale biodiversity challenges.

The Future of Biodiversity Conservation and Wildlife Management in the Anthropocene

In many ways, I feel like Buzz Holling must have while he was waiting for his evidence of ecological system “tipping points.” While evidence is mounting, we seem to be waiting to officially send the manuscript off to publish “we are now in the Anthropocene.” It will be necessary to assess all aspects of forest conservation as we transition into this era, wildlife management and biodiversity conservation included. Thinking about biodiversity at a larger spatial scale (i.e. landscapes) can help ensure that the appropriate key species for ecosystem functioning are recruited to local systems after a disturbance or when environmental conditions change. However, as Tabor and his colleagues note, we shouldn’t “throw the Wilderness baby out with the Holocene bathwater.” Present protected areas are important and may be resilient sites that can increase the capacity for species to adapt to changes in the landscape. Current protected areas, however, should be complemented with dynamic reserves and an authentic engagement with stakeholders across a variety of scales, importantly including local communities who live and work in the landscape. Local stakeholders are going to be critical for sustainable conservation success over the long-term, and can drive innovation if we facilitate the appropriate blending of local and scientific knowledge and narrative building.

The Anthropocene presents to us an incredible opportunity to break down the boundary between human societies here, and nature over there. Embracing the responsibility of stewarding other species and managing wildlife is a perfect segue into dissolving this nature-culture divide. Hopefully, like Buzz Holling, soon after publication, hundreds and then thousands of other researchers studying other systems will be providing further evidence to rethink biodiversity conservation and wildlife management in the Anthropocene.

Patrick Bixler is a Research Fellow at the Pinchot Institute for Conservation in Washington, DC.

1 http://www.resalliance.org/
2 Crawford Stanley (Buzz) Holling, is an Emeritus Eminent Scholar and Professor in Ecological Sciences at the University of Florida. Holling was an early pioneer in blending systems thinking with ecology and introduced a number of important concepts, including resilience, the adaptive cycle, and panarchy.
3 This discussion is informed from research in the Blackfoot from 2010 and 2013, published as (1) Bixler and Taylor 2012, and (2) unpublished dissertation, Bixler 2014.
4 This discussion comes from “The Political Ecology of Local Environmental Narratives: Power, Knowledge, and Mountain Caribou Conservation.” Journal of Political Ecology, 20: 273-285. The article can be accessed at: http://jpe.library.arizona.edu/volume_ 20/Bixler.pdf

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Forest Conservation and Management in the Anthropocene. General Technical Report. Fort Collins, CO: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Research Station.

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