"Changing the Human-Wildlife Dynamic"

Changing the Human-Wildlife Dynamic

Richard Wallace, professor of environmental studies, spends his sabbatical assessing the educational programs in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

He thinks of the programs in terms of the Common Intellectual Experience. And, he meets a former student who is the official photographer.

What’s an east coast professor doing as Educator-in-Residence of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative (NRCC)?

I am charged with providing leadership in educational program assessment and design that aligns with—and ideally benefits—NRCC’s core mission to foster collaborative communities of professional practice to address problems of human-wildlife coexistence.

For example, this year I am undertaking a detailed study of educational programs run by many different organizations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) to assess the teaching and learning that occurs in the GYE. I am also co-chairing (with Dr. Susan Clark) the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Symposium, which will be devoted to raising awareness and fostering discussion of problems involving the people-nature relationship in the GYE—and the solutions needed to address them.

I am one of four “experts-in-residence” at NRCC. One of the others is Rebecca Walter ’12, who is NRCC’s Photographer- in-Residence.

How did you first connect with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative?

In the late 1980s I met NRCC’s founder, Susan G. Clark, a longtime resident of Jackson Hole, Wyo. She is president emerita of NRCC and is currently the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Adjunct Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Policy Sciences at Yale University’s school of Forestry and Environmental Studies—which is my alma mater. In the mid-1990s I became an NRCC research associate, representing NRCC in my work analyzing, assessing, and designing integrative approaches to problem-solving about the relationships of people with charismatic animals and the ecosystems they inhabit.

What types of educational programs are offered in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)?

There are a huge number of educational offerings. They take all forms and welcome learners of all ages and interests. The primary organizations that are known for education in the GYE are the two national parks—Yellowstone and Grand Teton—and two organizations that have long focused on education, the Teton Science Schools and Yellowstone Association Institute. But there are many others (including NRCC) in the surrounding communities of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, as well as many colleges, universities and other organizations off-site that run programs in the GYE. Yellowstone is an iconic national park, and the GYE is perhaps North America’s most iconic ecosystem; this is what attracts so many people to it year after year. The sheer diversity of educational offerings is what makes it so interesting to study, and I am looking forward to shedding some light on the collective subject matter and methods used in the GYE “educational landscape.”

What is your initial assessment of these programs?

My initial assessment is that education in the GYE is roughly divided into three areas:

First, relatively basic education focuses on ecological and biological “facts,” aesthetic appreciation, and the entertainment value of the parks and wildlife.

Second is a deeper exploration of human experience in the GYE, with the ecosystem serving as a window on the world beyond its borders and on the inner meaning we bring to it—what it means to be human. Think of embedding Ursinus’s Common Intellectual Experience in the GYE and you’ll have a good idea of how this sort of education works. The GYE is a great place to ask the three CIE questions!

Finally, there is problem-oriented learning designed to mitigate and adapt to social and ecological crises, including ecological degradation, endangered species and other human overuse of the region’s fragile ecosystems.

Do you have concerns about the educational offerings?

All three of these areas of focus are important to GYE’s future. But the question is: Where is most effort focused, and to what effect? My worry, and one of the primary reasons I am undertaking this work, is that educators are too focused on the first area—“facts,” aesthetics, and entertainment—and not nearly enough on the second and third. As the Ursinus community well knows, the three CIE questions are critically important to understanding the human condition. My work places that assumption—that it is important to understand the human condition—in the context of the GYE, and then presses it forward in an applied fashion to a further assumption, that we must address the problems that are undermining the social and ecological stability of the GYE, before we undermine it any more than we already have.

What are the main issues facing the ecosystem? How do human beings undermine it?

The GYE suffers from a combination of pressures. One is that there are too many visitors—the ecosystem, including its national parks, their staff, and the region’s wildlife and other natural resources are unable to safely support the level of annual visitation they are currently subjected to. At the same time, visitors to the GYE are engaging in a form of “tough love.” They come expecting to engage in whatever activities they desire, and too often they lack an understanding or appreciation of the fragility of the ecosystem. People like to play hard. In an ecosystem that is perceived as rugged, that’s understandable—outdoors enthusiasts want to hike and bike and ski the back country in a place like the GYE. These can be life-changing experiences. But wildlife, plants, thermal features—they can’t tolerate the pressures so many people and their intense activities bring to bear.

The effects are everywhere: wildlife losing access to habitat due to human use, invasive species crowding out native species, even direct effects borne of ignorance. Just last year a family visiting Yellowstone took a bison calf and put it in their SUV—they thought it was cold!—and delivered it to a ranger station. Taking a bison calf from its mother is senseless and dangerous on so many levels, but this was also tragic: the calf had to be euthanized because it had not yet been weaned, and its mother rejected it after it had been handled by the humans. The whole incident points to the ignorance that needs to be overcome for human-wildlife coexistence to occur in the GYE.

How do you see yourself making a difference?

My work will demonstrate these connections and propose GYE-based educational programs steeped in an interdisciplinary, integrative approach that combines the strongest facets of environmental studies and the liberal arts. I hope to both run programs through NRCC (as I am already doing), and to eventually develop an Ursinus field course in the GYE—something I envision as a combination of an environmental studies course and an offering in the mold of CIE 300.

In all, the community of educators in the GYE has our work cut out for us—and that’s assuming that we shift from the relatively shallow educational focus on objects and aesthetics and entertainment to a more intentional conservation-oriented focus that includes deep questions about what it means to be human in the GYE, and what sort of ecosystem we want the GYE to be—now and for our children and grandchildren.

Photographs by Rebecca J. Walter ’12

With a degree in environmental studies, Rebecca combines her love and passion for the natural world with her photography to help raise environmental awareness. In addition to serving as the Resident Photographer for NRCC, she has worked with Save the Elephants in Kenya, The Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust in Uganda, and the African Wildlife Foundation in Southern Africa, among other organizations.

“Through my photography I hope to capture the beauty and raw power of the natural world that I have experienced, and that is forever unfolding before us. As a conservation photographer, my goal is to connect people back with the natural world; to inspire environmental awareness and conservation, and in so doing cultivate positive change for ourselves, our world, and all of its inhabitants, large and small.”

To learn more about Rebecca and view her work, visit RJWalter.com.