The human element: State wildlife biologists must add PR work to their repertoire


Wolves are the easiest species to manage, according to the state’s top large carnivore biologist. The hardest and most time-consuming species? Humans.

“The human component is where the challenge is,” said Dan Thompson, Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore section supervisor. “One of the first things they teach you when you go to school to be a biologist is that you’re going to be dealing with humans 90 percent of the time and wildlife 10 percent of the time.”

Thompson is responsible for the management of grizzly and black bears, mountain lions and wolves. Every one of the species is controversial.

Mountain lions, for example, were once hunted for a bounty. The $50 a head paid in the 1930s was the equivalent of more than $750 today, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. That led to overhunting of the species.

The secretive cats were hunted to near-extinction in much of the U.S. before the first scientific research on the species was even attempted. Bounties were paid as recently as 1963. That was despite scientific research done 30 years prior by Aldo Leopold suggesting the payments were counterproductive to the ecosystem. Now, after decades of management based on science, we’re seeing a resurgence of large carnivores like mountain lions, Thompson said in a Thursday talk at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

He holds a doctorate in wildlife biology and co-authored the book “Managing Cougars in North America.”

In one of several confounding human aspects in managing the big cats, researchers had to try to refrain from calling the species cougars in recent decades, Thompson said, as searches on the internet for “cougars” were turning up inappropriate information.

Mitigating human reaction and conflict to large carnivore management is often more difficult than managing populations of a particular species.

Thompson’s speech last week followed eight public meetings about grizzly management across the state; a gathering in Cody drew about 200 people.

The meetings were set up for the Game and Fish to listen to public concerns before the state finalizes its plans for managing grizzlies. Thompson was the only Game and Fish biologist to attend all of the meetings. He’s had a lot of recent experience dealing with controversial plans.

When wolves were delisted in Wyoming in 2012, the Game and Fish recommended managing populations in part through hunts. People filed lawsuits and mounted protests demanding halting hunts despite Game and Fish efforts to explain the science. When hunts finally looked to have passed all the challenges earlier this year, the Game and Fish once again held a meeting.

During the question and answer portion of the gathering, many hunters were upset with the state’s conservative quota set up for the first season. The quota was based on science, Thompson said, but none, for or against, went easy on state biologists.

Much of Thompson’s time is spent on mitigating human conflicts. The resurgence of large carnivores can and do cause problems, he said. But that is, again, a human perspective and there are at least two distinct sides which the state has to consider.

“If you’re a livestock producer you might have a different opinion than someone running a wildlife tour,” Thompson said. “Large carnivore conflicts are a very real part of our everyday jobs at the Game and Fish. We have one of the most active carnivore conflict programs in North America.”

Being a scientist is difficult work and takes years of education to earn advanced degrees just to get a job. Managing wildlife species capable of eating a person adds to the difficulties. If the work were solely about a specific species or environmental issue, the job would still be challenging. Throw in working with the public and suddenly biologists also need to be well versed in public relations.

“All of our guys have to be able to go before a crowd and talk to them. But they also have to be able to catch a bear,” Thompson said.

Adding politics and controversy to science can be a near impossible task — whether giving a speech in front of a large crowd or walking door-to-door, talking to people about conflict management. Thompson is a natural public speaker.

Dealing with the human element of his job keeps him constantly on the road. He serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Wyoming, South Dakota State University, Montana State University, University of Montana and Utah State University. He chairs the science committee for the Wyoming Chapter of the Wildlife Society and has authored articles as well as his book.

“People are very passionate about these animals and we can use that to our advantage,” he said. “[Managing large carnivores] goes from a novelty, when there’s not many of the animals around, to a real situation very quick.”