What it means to live large

When looking at large carnivore conservation this past week, it became evident that there are lots of layers to this topic. It’s about more than habitat availability or prey populations- it also includes the individuality of species and human attitudes.

Our attitudes toward brown bears tend to depend on our age, sex, and location. Photo by Terry Tollefsbol

Our attitudes toward brown bears tend to depend on our age, sex, and location. Photo by Terry Tollefsbol

To begin with, there is the nature of carnivore ecology– these animals have large home ranges, low population densities, and slow population growth. As a result, they tend to be sensitive to habitat loss and are slow to recover from population declines. [There are exceptions to this last bit- coyotes, for example, increase litter size and decrease age of sexual maturity in response to increased population mortality (Knowlton et al. 1999.)- but coyotes are also an interesting case of being the top predator in some systems and a middle-tier predator in others…] So, an initial question is whether a particular location has enough usable habitat to support large carnivores. The question of food availability is also important- are there enough prey individuals for the large carnivores to eat? When we take these questions and apply them to a long-term outlook (let’s say 100-200 years), we may find that the amount of space required to answer ‘yes’ to both questions becomes very, very big because we need to sustain a large enough population to avoid inbreeding, survive unexpected disasters, etc. Planning on this scale can feel overwhelming, and Noss et al. (1996) suggested looking at the issue as comprised of metapopulations, meaning that there are multiple populations in smaller areas connected by immigration. This can reduce the scale of planning, but means that you have to protect access corridors between populations so that animals can successfully reach new areas. One interesting aspect of human perspectives in areas with large carnivores is the extent to which we (don’t) recognize disturbance. Among people who leave more urban environments for rural settings because they want to be in an ecosystem that still supports large carnivores, many don’t realize how much of the area has been developed because it’s less than in their previous location (Jobes 1991).

Different species will respond to habitat development and human presence in different ways, which means that you can’t simply say ‘carnivore conservation works by x, y, and z…’ Bears have shown themselves adaptable to human presence [for example, raiding trash dumpsters for food (Herrero 1985)], but this means that there is an increased chance for conflict with humans. In contrast, wolverines in Norway were particularly sensitive to habitat fragmentation when compared with wolves, bears, and lynx (May et al. 2008).

And we appear to have different attitudes and responses to various carnivore species. Despite the fact that mountain lions cause more injuries to people in North America than wolves, we see wolves as the big threat, often without having any previous (negative or otherwise) experience with the animals (Kellert et al. 1996). A survey in Latvia found that people supported protection for rare brown bears and population control for more common wolves and lynx (Andersone & Ozolins 2004), so some of our opinions are tied to perceived abundance of species. Older age groups tend to have more negative views of large carnivores (Kellert et al. 1996, Andersone & Ozolins 2004), and attitudes toward large carnivores in Austria were more positive in areas from which they had only recently disappeared (Zeiler et al. 1999). In short there are a lot of factors that influence how we respond to the presence of large carnivores.

So what does this all mean? Apart from the message that each species and location seems to be a special case, what does this say about large carnivore conservation? Well, first of all it suggests that we need to think about more than just protected spaces- we have to think about local communities, the possibilities for human-carnivore conflict, and a variety of other issues. It also means that, the better we understand a carnivore’s ecology, the better we can figure out what it will take to sustain it in specific situations and, indeed, if that goal is realistic.

The research outlined above is constantly being added to and there are bound to be new insights into large carnivore conservation from the past few years. In my next post, I’ll look into more recent studies and see what they suggest for a world big enough to include us and large predators.

Works cited:
Andersone, Z and J Ozolins. 2004. Public perception of large carnivores in Latvia. Ursus 15: 181-187.
Herrero, S. 1985. Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. New York: Nick Lyons Books.
Jobes, PC. 1991. The greater Yellowstone social system. Conservation Biology 5: 387-394.
Kellert, SR, Black, M, Rush, CR and AJ Bath. 1996. Human culture and large carnivore conservation in North America. Conservation Biology 10: 977-990.
May, R, van Dijk, J, Wabakken, P, Swenson, JE, Linnell, JDC, Zimmermann, B, Odden, J, Pedersen, HC, Andersen, R and A Landa. 2008. Habitat differentiation within the large-carnivore community of Norway’s multiple-use landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology 45: 1382-1391.
Noss, RF, Quigley, HB, Hornocker, MG, Merrill, T and PC Paquet. 1996. Conservation biology and carnivore conservation in the Rocky Mountains. Conservation Biology 10: 949-963.
Knowlton, FF, Gese, EM and MM Jaeger. 1999. Coyote depredation control: and interface between biology and management. Journal of Range Management 52: 398-412.
Zeiler, H, Zedrosser, A and A Bath. 1999. Attitudes of Austrian hunters and Vienna residents toward bear and lynx in Austria. Ursus 11: 193-200.