Report: International Wildlife Coexistence Conference 2022

Kim Hightower is a humane educator and the communications specialist for PAN Works.

Suzanne Asha Stone is the director of the International Wildlife Coexistence Network and the founding director of the Wood River Wolf Project, two organizations dedicated to community-led, research-based, nonviolent approaches to solving human-wildlife conflict. Through Suzanne’s arduous efforts, expertise, and devotion to wolves and other wildlife, the International Wildlife Coexistence Conference, held 17–21 October 2022, fostered rich discourse and provided ground for leaders to connect and collaborate. The focus was compassionate approaches to coexistence across diverse ecosystems and landscapes.

On a planet fraught with conflict and attached to harmful, anthropocentric socioecological paradigms, compassion offers hope for coexistence. The conference mirrored this poignantly, a reflection of its semi-wild setting in Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. Attended by leaders and researchers presenting from myriad angles of conservation theory, the conference itself spotlighted how “wild” ecosystems like the one in which we sat, among countless others across the planet, are rapidly becoming less wild — and its inhabitants increasingly threatened by human behavior.

The Chico Hot Springs Resort is nestled beneath Emigrant Peak in the Absaroka Range of Pray, Montana (Image: Chico Hot Springs, n.d.).

The event commenced with macro-level discussions on rewilding and coexistence, with research presented by an impressive group of scientists including Dr. Louise Boronyak and Dr. Carly Vynne — and dovetailing into many fascinating, granular presentations including those on nonlethal livestock management efforts by Shlomo Preiss-Bloom and the effects of wolf tolerance by Dr. Gavin Bonsen. From Nadia de Souza’s summary of the successful and multi-faceted Lion Guardians program to Erin Allison’s sharing about human perceptions of rattlesnakes, methods of research employed were vast and approaches to conservation varied. On elephants, we heard from Mai Nguyen on Humane Society International Vietnam’s efforts to conserve and protect the wellbeing of wild Asian elephants — followed by an enlightening discussion with Dr. Radhika Makecha on using elephant cognition to appeal to human emotions in conservation education. With a strong focus on livestock guardian dog presentations from researchers such as Krisztina Gayler with the National Wolfwatcher Coalition and others, the conference framework made clear the role and nuanced impact of these programs.

Following empirical studies on specific conflict issues came a symposium on the role of compassion in conservation, inviting an expansive discussion about compassion as inextricable from coexistence-rooted conservation efforts. This stance beckons solutions that prioritize the value and claims of individual people and animals — as well as the claims of those landscapes which ought to support thriving, multispecies communities.

Dr. Michelle Lute of Project Coyote led a ground-breaking and critical talk on rewilding, which centralized their take on the ethical imperative for an end to animal agriculture — including possible future forced extinctions. This stood in tension with Matt Skoglund’s philosophy at North Bridger Bison — which lifts up the idea that regenerative agriculture, through grazing species such as bison, could be one of the keys to kickstarting rewilding and might lay the foundation for reawakening biodiverse landscapes. A beautiful bridge, here, James Holt of the Buffalo Field Campaign discussed the importance of restoring wild bison in and beyond the Yellowstone ecosystem. Michelle and the team at Project Coyote raised unique questions underlined by multispecies ethnography — what it might mean and look like to view the socioecological cultures of individuals and species from a new, inclusive moral lens. This conversation further probed complex thought into the likely biological and social interplay required of various plant and animal species in order to fulfill a flourishing, wild, mixed community. Henceforth arose a platform for in-depth, ethical discourse.

Presentation on predators in the conference room at Chico Hot Springs (Image: Hightower, 2022).

Importantly, at the time of the conference, Project Coyote and WildEarth Guardians were at work on a lawsuit against Montana FWP and others to protect Montana’s wolves — which has recently resulted in a temporary reprieve in the form of a restraining order for the wolves, reinstating some of the previous regulations and limits around hunting and trapping until a court decision is reached. Their continued litigation efforts will be instrumental within this greater dialogue and shared plea for compassionate policies. Michelle Lute’s presentation dovetailed off of Dr. Neil Carter’sdiscussion around building models of coexistence in an increasingly crowded world. Both acknowledge the urgent need for a path to rewilding, Suzanne Stone’s evergreen approach to wolf conservation with the Wood River Wolf Project serving as a perfect model for this.

As sessions unfolded and conversations evolved, it was distilled in talks and question-and-answer sessions that compassion ought to be the undercurrent of research, policy, and practice — and change ought, also, to take shape through education and youth engagement. Dick Jordan’s tenacious and vital work with youth, and his sharing about the power of educational programs, seemed to punctuate the preceding discussions. He noted that “you have to tell stories” and reminded us of Baba Dioum’s sage words: “We will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” While emphasizing the importance of wild bison on the landscape, James Holt echoed Dick’s imperative that robust youth programs are key to fostering the next generation of conservationists. Dick also drew attention to Michael Nelson’s notion of “thinking through the lens of coexistence” and a “moral ethic of care.” Applying this stance in their quest for coyote tolerance and coexistence, Dr. Shelley Alexander and Lesley Sampson noted that “policy is developed through our systematic ideologies of who these animals are.”

During a culminating session on research frameworks for coexistence, Dr. Liv Baker of PAN Works emphasized the importance of centralizing nonhuman subjectivity and discussed what it means to live in a mixed moral community. She wove together theory and practical ethics, nurturing in attendees a thorough understanding of compassionate approaches to individual wellbeing and species conservation. Struck by what felt like a color wheel of projects, each offering a piece of the puzzle, I summed that they were all stones along the path to some version of harmony, providing footing as we advocate for humans to expand their circles of moral concern in our endeavors to cultivate and embody thriving systems. Each presenter’s work, may their ideals be rooted in different but ever-more convergent sensibilities, was underscored by — in some overt or more-layered form — compassion. As Liv drills down, the path lies in our consideration of the moral claims of other species. With this framing, we can seek to form communities founded on the wellbeing of wild lives, humans, and the natural world.

Yellowstone River at sunrise on day two of the IWC conference (Image: Hightower, 2022).

The variety of dynamic initiatives displayed at the conference implored presenters and attendees alike to consider how some seemingly disparate issues might connect, to mine these talks for continuity — for the spaces in between which make room for an amalgamation of solutions. Such solutions, when activated and when based on solid ethical frameworks, could be models for cross-contextual, globally-applicable resolutions to myriad human-wildlife problems. Ultimately, this space provided a fertile landscape for leaders and change-makers to connect around diverse yet shared worldviews. The incalculable hard work and innovation that preceded this meeting-of-minds laid the groundwork for continued collaboration and forward movement.

Boots-on-the-ground, we are individually and collectively called to compassionate action. In light of each of our unique roles on the planet, it is prudent to reflect upon compassion as our north star, a lens that is required of us in order to transcend outdated structures rooted in human exceptionalism. We are being called to expand in perspective and to re-root in practice. Tune in to the research; keep informed about current policies and practices; and raise your voice with the legislature when possible. Consider the impact of education and engaging our youth in growing ethical communities and weaving new systems founded upon geocentrism, as urged by Dr. William Lynn. The team at PAN Works knows that if we ask how we ought to live and view all beings as subjective, autonomous, equally valuable parts of the greater whole, groups like the one that congregated to create such a productive environment at the IWC conference can catalyze momentum. Herein lies the opportunity to integrate theoretical frameworks, empirical research, education, practical ethics, and an ethos of compassion on the road to spreading social change — and spurring a new world paradigm for people, animals, and nature to flourish.

PAN Works is a nonprofit think tank dedicated to animal wellbeing. Please visit us for more about our work.

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People•Animals•Nature

People•Animals•Nature (PAN) is a publication of PAN Works, an ethics think tank dedicated to the wellbeing of animals. https://panworks.io