By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily
Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and presidential hopeful known for his animal advocacy and veganism.
John Barrasso, a conservative Republican from Wyoming who serves in a top leadership position for Senate Republicans, is known for his support of animal agriculture and our nation’s energy industry.
What do they have in common? Both have an interest in reducing human-predator conflicts. Barrasso is the primary sponsor of the bill, but Booker joined together with Tom Carper (D-Delaware), and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), to cosponsor Senate Bill 2194, Promoting Resourceful and Effective Deterrents Against Threats Or Risks involving Species (PREDATORS) Act. If enacted, the bill will amend the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act to establish the Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize for reducing human-predator conflict.
Last week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony about the possibility of providing a financial incentive for the development of non-lethal, innovative technologies that reduce conflict between human and wildlife predators.
While human fatalities caused by grizzly bears are a concern to Barrasso’s constituents, the committee also heard testimony about shark attacks, as well as conflicts involving mountain lions and alligators. Brad Hovinga of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department provided testimony, as did Animal Planet’s Extinct or Alive host Forrest Galante, and Dr. Nick Whitney of the New England Aquarium.
Hovinga told the committee: “Wildlife agencies use a variety of innovative, non-lethal technologies to aid in reducing conflicts. These technologies include the use of chalk and pepper balls, weapon-fired beanbags, a variety of pyrotechnics and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Wyoming recently trained personnel in the use of conducted electrical weapons, commonly known as tasers, for use as an aversion tool for wildlife.”
Hovinga talked about the both the importance and limitations of pepper spray, and the need for innovation in improving conducting electrical devices for use as both an aversive conditioning tool and a temporary immobilization tool.
“Improvements in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drone technology, that allow for the deployment of aversive conditioning tools would greatly improve our ability to keep people safe and influence the behavior of habituated or aggressive wildlife. Developments in FLIR and thermal camera technology for the use with UAVs would significantly increase human safety when assessing dangerous situations.” Hovinga said. “Lastly, long-range acoustic sound devices, or sound cannons, are devices that directionally deliver sound over long distances. The potential for development of long-range acoustic deterrents for wildlife management exists. Work to develop an appropriate aversive conditioning tool for addressing wildlife conflicts would be greatly beneficial.”
One difference I noted between both the senators speaking during the hearing, and the witnesses giving testimony, was perspectives on encroachment – whether humans are encroaching on animals, or animals are encroaching on humans. While some conflicts occur when predators in Wyoming come into urban areas seeking prey (such as mountain lions pursuing deer in urban developments), Delaware Senator Carper noted that human-predator interactions are increasingly common as more people recreate “in wildlife habitat.” Carper said “as humans continue to encroach upon wildlife habitat and compete with predators for the same space and the same natural resources, our relationships with these animals can become, in some cases, adversarial.”
Some committee members emphasized the need to address habitat loss and protect predators, while others expressed the need for more scientific research to understand changes in animal behavior due to climate change, and pressed for public education about wildlife species.
Near the close of the hearing, Barrasso pointedly asked Hovinga: “since the goal of the Genius Prize we are considering is to protect both predators and humans, regarding predators, the key to protecting their lives involves preventing conflicts with humans in the first place. Can you explain why, from your years and history and knowledge, after a conflict with humans occurs, it may be necessary to euthanize some of these predators?”
Hovinga’s reply reflected the reality involved when large predators come into conflict with humans. He said: “That is an unfortunate reality sometimes with wildlife management and wildlife behavior, that we have to realize. With a lot of wildlife, bears specifically and other large carnivores, those behaviors that end up becoming a part of an animal’s everyday behavior, that becomes dangerous toward humans, those are learned behaviors. Those are typically learned through successes over time. It usually revolves around those successes in obtaining food.”
Hovinga gave an example of a black bear that learned when it approached people, the people would drop their backpacks and run away, allowing the bear to receive a food reward from the backpacks. Over time, the bear repeated the action, and the more aggressive the bear became, the higher the probability the person would drop the backpack and run away. He added, “Fortunately, we were able to intervene in that situation, prior to that becoming dangerous and actually somebody becoming injured.”
He continued: “Those learned behaviors are very, very difficult for animals to unlearn. They typically don’t unlearn them. It is irresponsible for us as a wildlife management agency to allow animals to remain on the landscape that engage in behavior that is dangerous toward people. Unfortunately, sometimes those animals need to be removed from the population. The populations are nearly always doing well enough that those removals are not significant in the scheme of the population management, but certainly, a requirement to keep people safe.”
This is an issue all state wildlife managers have to deal with and must justify to the public when wild predators are killed to protect human safety. Listening to the testimony before the committee, it became evident that to some, living with wild predators is more of an idea than a reality. It’s a reality for wildlife manager Hovinga, and to a majority of Barrasso’s constituents.
As it should, the committee hearing provided a forum for a variety of views on a diversity of predator-human interaction issues. That Democrats from densely populated areas would have differing views than Republicans from sparsely populated areas is to be expected. That they are talking and sharing their experiences for a wider audience is important.
Both Barrasso and Hovinga represented Wyoming well.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.