To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. -Theodore Roosevelt

Collective Science and Collaborative Conservation


By John F. Organ, B&C Professional Member
Excerpt from Summer 2015 issue of Fair Chase

In the Spring Issue of Fair Chase I wrote about how several state fish and wildlife agencies working together, along with their Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units, can yield powerful science and ultimately great- er conservation success. I want to take this a step fur- ther and talk about broader collaborations and how these alliances can be the model for taking on our greatest conservation challenges.

The early years of scientific wildlife management involved a lot of discovery. A tremendous amount could be learned by studying one species in one local area. Just documenting basic information like births, deaths, feeding habits, and other life history factors was new and important information. Early wildlife scientists such as Herbert Stoddard, Aldo Leopold, Paul Errington, and Ralph “Terry” King conducted experiments on game and fur-bearer species such as northern bobwhite quail and muskrats to understand how management of habitats, hunting, and trapping affected populations. Much of this groundbreaking work was done in marshes, agricultural lands, forests, and prairies that were limited to a part of one state. The challenges facing these early conservationists were daunting, and the discoveries they made were essential in recovering our game and furbearer populations.

The conservation challenges we face today are not only daunting—they are incredibly complex. The complexity is a product of the many biological, physical, political, economic, institutional, and sociocultural factors that affect wildlife and their habitats. It gets really dicey when people’s livelihoods and a species’ survival are in competition. This can boil down to how land is used and managed. The questions are difficult: How much land is necessary? What alternatives do humans have to minimize impacts while still living off the land? What can we predict for 10, 20, or 50 years out? If a species declines to the point where it is placed on the federal endangered species list, it becomes a trust species of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the responsibility is placed upon the agency to recover that species. That can place the USFWS in a difficult position, wherein fulfilling their legal mandate they come into conflict with those who live on and derive their livelihoods from the land. The USFWS, the states, and the people on the land want to avoid conflict. There have been enough episodes of conflict in our history—some ongoing—that today’s leaders are seeking to avoid such conflicts by working together. Science can be an important leveling force in building a constructive conservation program that minimizes conflict.

One such effort involves the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), an iconic grassland bird of the southwestern Great Plains. The lesser prairie-chicken is found primarily in the high plains of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas, and is adapted to extreme environmental conditions that historically caused large fluctuations in its population. According to Drs. Dave Haukos, Clint Boal, and Scott Carleton of the Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units, the species has dramatically declined during the past century, with some estimates of over 90 percent reduction in population size and occupied range. The USFWS was petitioned to list the species in 1995 and determined that listing was warranted, but precluded by the need to list and recover species under greater threat. This prompted the five affected State fish and wildlife agencies to form an inter-state group to develop research priorities, deliver the science, and develop conservation plans. Along with the states, the USFWS, the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Geological Survey, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and the Wildlife Management Institute have worked together to address information needs and implement conservation actions.

The three Coop Units in collaboration with their state fish and wildlife agencies initiated a number of research projects investigating things such as aerial survey methods for accurate population estimates, breeding season ecology, avian predation, overwinter ecology, and habitat attributes that favor nest success. These efforts attracted other partners including the federal agencies, who then provided additional support enabling expansion of the research, allowing the population to be studied at an unprecedented geographic scale.

This brief description does not do justice to the magnitude of the effort and the success it has brought. Dr. Dave Haukos of the Kansas Coop Unit presented a paper at the recent North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Omaha that gave a detailed overview. The bottom line is that this was a species headed for listing as Endangered, which would have limited the options available to states, the USFWS, and the landowners. The collaborative effort among states, federal agencies, universities, private landowners, and conservation groups resulted in the species being listed as threatened, allowing for a special rule that provides greater management flexibility. USFWS Director Dan Ashe, ex-officio member of the Boone and Crockett Club, stated the following when announcing the listing:

“The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits; and our determination that it warrants listing as a threatened species with a special rule acknowledges the unprecedented partnership efforts and leadership of the five range states for management of the species. Working through the WAFWA rangewide conservation plan, the states remain in the driver’s seat for managing the species—more than has ever been done before—and participating landowners and developers are not impacted with additional regulatory requirements.”

Carter Smith, Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Boone and Crockett Professional Member noted that the lesser prairie-chicken effort has been able to “address short-term information needs while also conducting long-term, state-of-the-art research on complex, longer-term questions.”

Eighty years ago we were able to accomplish a lot through simple studies. Many of the challenges today cannot be solved with a single study in one place during one time period. We are likely to see more efforts where several states, agencies, and organizayions work together over large landscapes to be proactive, using science and collaboration to keep species off of the endangered species list.

More Science Blasts

Read more articles about conservation, hunting, and wildlife research by John Organ, Director Emeritus of the USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units, and current B&C professional member.

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt