By Tim Smith
16th June 2014
Rewilding is beginning to occur in many countries, believed by some to be a solution to the global problems of ecosystem degradation and declining numbers of the world’s large carnivores.
In some areas such as Europe, rewilding is happening spontaneously, albeit facilitated by the depopulation of rural areas and the support of conservation policy, and has seen the recovery of species such as bears, lynx, wolves, wild boar and beavers.
In other countries such as North America, rewilding projects have involved the deliberate reintroduction of keystone species to wilderness areas, such as the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
However, as populations of large carnivores now start to recover, ancient conflicts have been rekindled, particularly between humans and wolves. This is mainly due to predation on livestock, but also secondary to competition for game, and the killing of hunting dogs and pets.
Studies of public attitudes (for example see here and here) can be somewhat misleading; they tend to show that general populations hold either neutral or positive attitudes to having large carnivores roaming around their country. However, this disguises the strong opposition from smaller subgroups such as farmers, rural residents and hunters; in other words, those people that are directly affected by these top predators in their daily lives. It is also predicted that negative attitudes are only going to increase, as carnivore populations increase and their impacts become more widespread.
If rewilding is going to work on a large scale, then we need to find ways to facilitate the co-existence of humans with top predators, and this means using more effective approaches than are currently being employed. One only needs to look at the example of wolves in Sweden and France for evidence of the precarious state of their existence.
At present, countries use a variety of tools to help minimise conflict, but their individual strategies have achieved varying degrees of success. There are two main types of tool that are currently in use: prevention measures, such as fencing and guardian dogs, and those based on financial compensation.
This has been the mainstay of conflict management so far in most European countries and in North America. It usually involves the retrospective payment of damages by a local government to a farmer after livestock predation has occurred. However, this approach has not been shown to improve public attitudes or decrease levels of illegal hunting of large carnivores.
There are a number of drawbacks with these schemes: they can be expensive and economically unsustainable if predator populations continue to increase in size and range. It can also be difficult to verify the cause of livestock damage, and given that compensation is usually paid where doubt exists, then this can result in fraudulent claims and inappropriate payments.
In addition, unless compensation is conditional on the use of prevention measures, then they also run the risk of being perceived as a substitute for using best practice methods of livestock protection, such as fencing, night enclosures and proper animal husbandry. However, linking compensation with prevention is by no means the norm; in Europe, only Sweden, Slovenia, Poland and some Spanish and German provinces operate in this way.
Despite some form of compensation being expected by the pubic, the retrospective approach is not popular amongst livestock producers, probably because it does not usually cover the full costs of predation, and due to the delay that exists between losses and receipt of payment.
On the other hand, an economic tool that does show some promise in carnivore conflict management is an adaptation of a payment for environmental services (PES) scheme. In this context it is known as a conservation performance payment, in which a farmer or rural community is paid for the number of certified carnivore reproductions that occur in their jurisdiction. The amount paid is based on an estimate of the future damages caused by the carnivore offspring over its lifetime.
A good example of this is from Sweden, where the government makes payments to the indigenous Sami people for reproductions of wolverine and lynx that occur on their reindeer grazing territory. Payment is made collectively to Sami villages, rather than individual herders. This approach appears to have achieved some success, with wolverine reproductions exceeding targets.
Other situations where performance payments have been used for conservation include payments to Kenyan fishermen for releasing turtles from fishing nets, and to Mexican ranchers for recording jaguars, pumas, ocelot and bobcats on camera traps.
Performance payments have a number of advantages over retrospective compensation. Firstly, they are more likely to be deemed fair and acceptable, in that there are no time lags (payment is made before the carnivore kills livestock), and the amount paid is purely dependent on conservation performance. In addition, the unit price is calculated based on an estimate of future damages over the predators lifespan, thus the payment is more likely to be perceived to cover costs.
This approach is also thought to be more effective for both conservation and promoting tolerance, due to the dual economic incentives to keep the target species alive and reproducing, and to invest in damage prevention measures, thereby turning what is effectively a compensation payment into an income.
A potential disadvantage however, is the expense and difficulty arising from the need to verify the conservation outcome. Furthermore, problems can sometimes arise if individuals are paid rather than communities: in situations where property rights are not well defined, the more powerful members of the local community may be apt to exploit their position to the detriment of less influential individuals. Areas involved in community PES schemes may also become a “welfare magnet,” in which people deliberately migrate to the region to benefit from such payments.
Guardian dogs have been used for centuries in Europe and Asia to protect livestock, however, in common with other traditional techniques such as shepherding, their use dwindled in the early 20th Century as large carnivore numbers declined. As a result these dog breeds diminished, as did knowledge of their management. As carnivores have returned to many areas of Europe, the use of guardian dogs has also increased, as farmers start to re-adopt traditional methods; for example in Poland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Slovakia.
Correctly trained guardian dogs can significantly reduce livestock attacks and losses, particularly when an optimal number of dogs per flock are used, and when used in conjunction with other techniques such as fenced pastures and night pens. However, they are less effective where livestock are well dispersed or free ranging. Their use also requires education, training and economic support, and behavioural issues can be a problem.
Fencing is a simple and effective method of protecting livestock from wolves and other carnivores, however, they need to be regularly maintained, and of sufficient height to prevent them being overcome. Electric fences have been found to be particularly effective, especially in combination with a livestock guardian dog. A cheaper, albeit temporary solution for use against wolves is mobile fladry tape. This is an ancient technique originally used to hunt wolves in Eastern Europe and Russia; it simply consists of flags strung at regular intervals along a single strand of wire, and has been shown to deter them for up to 60 days, after which it is overcome by habituation.
Guardian dogs and fencing are significant investments, in terms of cost, time and effort. Dogs are estimated to cost US $200-450 to buy, and US $250 per year to maintain, and barriers need regular maintenance, especially if electric fencing is used. Given the fact that these preventive measures have proven effective against predation, it would seem reasonable for governments to subsidise them, however this approach is not as widely used as retrospective compensation. Occasionally private conservation groups get involved, such as the Defenders of Wildlife in the USA, who maintain a fund for both guard dog subsidies and compensation payments.
It is clear that there is no single, gold-standard approach for managing the inevitable conflict that arises when humans and large carnivores co-exist. Instead, it is likely that for each situation a mixture of tools is required, tailored to deal with the unique local variables involved, such as the carnivore to be reintroduced, existing land management activities and prevailing cultural attitudes.
Prevention is always better than cure, but in the real world completely avoiding conflict is impossible, so both prevention and compensation measures are required to provide a more equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of living with large carnivores. Public funds for conservation are limited, so perhaps a strategy that combines public and privately funded subsidises for guard dogs, fencing and fladry, with conservation performance payments (conditional on carnivore reproductions), might prove more effective than current approaches which tend to rely heavily on retrospective compensation.
Whatever strategy is used, it is worth remembering that regardless of the various reasons we might want rewilding with large carnivores to occur, it will not be successful without giving equal consideration to humans.