Montana’s Growing Population Forces Conservationists to Adapt

Conservation management has always involved community education and interaction with the public. But as Montana’s population grows, wildlife experts have to work more and more on their human skills.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks got more calls than usual about baby animals this spring.

“People have a soft spot for baby animals,” said Greg Lemon, manager of FWP’s communications and education division.

Baby rabbits, baby deer, baby birds — you name it, Lemon says, people are calling with concerns. Usually callers worry that these animals have been abandoned, but many species leave their young alone for short periods of time.

Holding or moving a young animal may not seem like such a big deal, but that kind of interaction falls into the category of “human-nature conflicts.” This kind of conflict is increasing in Montana.

“If you look at our communities that have expanded, we’re starting to see more conflict,” said Citroen.

In the past decade, Montana’s population grew about 10%. Lemon says human-nature conflicts are a bigger problem than ever before, and that’s to be expected in a state that has seen the country’s third-largest population growth in the past two years.

“In Montana, all the places where we’ve built cities used to be habitat for wildlife, and it’s not anymore.”

Preventing animal-human conflict can be anything from polling opinions about wolves, installing electric fencing on farms to ward off grizzlies, and teaching people to knock down bird feeders when bears are likely to be in there. be nearby. It also includes reminding the public that it is perfectly normal for a baby deer to be alone. Much of it isn’t strictly biology, which most wildlife managers studied. It’s more about communicating that knowledge.

A sign in a national forest by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee explains how to protect attractants from wildlife by keeping a clean camp and hanging food, trash and toiletries at least three feet high and four feet from a vertical support.  Food and attractants can also be stored in hard-sided vehicles or bear-resistant containers.

A sign in a national forest explains how to secure attractants from wildlife near the camp.

“Certainly a large part of them are human dimensions”, said Chad Bishop.

Bishop has recognized the need for more effective industry messaging. He heads the Department of Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana and previously served as an assistant director at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state’s premier wildlife management agency.

Bishop said he’s seen several conservationists say, “I don’t need biologists anymore. We know what the problems are. I need someone who can help me implement the implications of biology.”

Bishop co-authored a 2021 paper published in Conservation Science and Practice calling for more interdisciplinary education for nature professionals† The paper argued that these skills are vital in a field dealing with the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss and a polarized political climate.

University nature programs focus on biology, physiology, and ecology, meaning managers new to the field are often surprised by the work they end up doing.

“What they’ve found is that it’s not so much about the biophysical aspects of these problems,” said Alex Metcalf, a professor at the University of Montana in the Department of Society and Conservation. “They’re in town halls, in people’s living rooms, in public commentary sessions and have to navigate those social spaces.”

This has become such a common story that the University of Montana’s Department of Wildlife Biology is restructuring its curriculum to address it. Undergraduate students in the program are required to take a human dimensions course beginning in 2023.

Kari Eneas, who obtained her master’s degree from UM in 2020, has seen the difficulty of human communication through her work as a wildlife program manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“If we can’t bring them what we know from a biology standpoint in a way that they understand, then there’s a huge gap and we won’t see the improvements we need to reduce that conflict,” Eneas said.

Not everyone has supported the state’s current strategy to include human dimensions in wildlife management. A bill introduced in the 2019 Legislative Assembly would have banned the FWP from making decisions using “social sciences, human dimensions, or people’s attitudes, opinions or preferences.” The bill was unpopular with wildlife advocates and researchers and died in the process.

Wesley Sarmento is a conflict manager at FWP grizzly bears in downtown Montana. He says it would have been helpful to learn more human dimension skills in school, but he had to learn them with his boots on the floor.

“Most people, when you first meet them, will break in and tell you all the things they think are wrong with the agency and with wildlife. At the third or fourth meeting, they usually invite you for coffee or give you cookies.”

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