Protecting Endangered Species by Studying Human Behavior

Environmental Stewardship

Wolves, toads, elephants, alligators and bats may seem to have little in common, but all of these animals are part of Dr. Chris Serenari’s research program.

An assistant professor in human dimensions of wildlife at Texas State University, the common thread, and the true focus of his research, is yet another animal species: humans.

Man holding falcon

The survival of threatened and endangered species depends on strengthening human commitment to their recovery. Serenari’s research bridges ecology and social science, seeking to explain the ways in which politics and culture influence how we govern wildlife.

One way to improve the efficacy of wildlife governance, Serenari contends, is to reframe the debate. Discussion in his field tends to focus on finding common ground among stakeholders, but according to Serenari, “There is rarely a middle ground. Stakeholders are often not actually stakeholders. They’re seated around the table trying to strategize how to get what they want. These people are actually policy contestants.” By policy contestants Serenari means people who compete for a particular policy outcome. Shifting from characterizing landowners, government agencies, nonprofits and other interests as stakeholders to policy contestants honors the idea of wildlife conservation as a political act and the role of deliberative democracy in creating and hindering opportunities to build consensus and cooperative relationships. 

The challenge is figuring out how to scale up outreach efforts and convince a lot of landowners, all at once, to protect toads.

Reframing the debate would, for instance, improve trust and communication around conservation, which is critical for enlisting the help of landowners to protect the vulnerable species that live on their property. In some cases, such as the critically endangered Houston toad, as much as 95% of landholdings important to the toad’s survival is privately owned. To establish a sufficient amount of suitable habitat for toads to persist, managers and citizens must now consider how their actions impact ecosystems not just parcels. “The challenge is figuring out how to scale up outreach efforts and convince a lot of landowners, all at once, to protect toads.”

Raising awareness is not enough, because many landowners who are aware of the problem, and even sympathetic to the goal, may still refuse to cooperate with conservation efforts due, in part, to distrust of government. Serenari says, “In the case of the Houston toad, there are plenty of folks who are steadfast proponents of civil liberties but afraid to have a species verified on their property. You can’t put a GPS tracker on a toad. The key sentiment is that if the government detects the animal on private land then the government is going to prohibit landowner activities. One challenge is to create government-led programs that get past all that.” 

Student holding an animal

Building trust between landowners, government and conservation groups requires reconsideration of the ideas and strategies often employed. For example, wildlife agencies need to better understand how their institutional culture can cast conservation as a fight between good guys and bad guys, and also why educational campaigns or financial incentives may be rejected. Serenari says, “My research explores how to build relationships between a government entity and landowners in a way that’s productive. Every landowner in Texas is different, but the starting point for common ground between these groups is often that everyone involved is passionate about wildlife.”

Landowners have diverse reasons for valuing wildlife including the pleasure they may take from hunting and fishing, concern for a disappearing species, holding an ideological interest in symbolic resistance to development, or a desire to bequeath healthy land to their children. Recognizing the tension between landowners’ fear of government and their love of wildlife can facilitate creative, flexible solutions like Safe Harbor Agreements. These voluntary agreements require landowners to promote the existence of a threatened or endangered species on their property without the risk of land use restrictions. 

We’re providing opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to value empirically informed decisions, achieve an awareness, and heighten their passion for wildlife conservation. 

The normative principles underlying current wildlife conservation strategies are based on a dated paradigm, where fish and wildlife agencies have prioritized the interests of hunting and fishing constituencies for nearly 100 years. However, society is changing, and agencies are working hard to adapt. Serenari sees a promising future for threatened and endangered species recovery because, “There has been a value shift in this country, from a view of wildlife as something meant for human use to a desire to live in harmony with wildlife.” This cultural, generational shift is part of Serenari’s motivation for involving students in every aspect of his research. He says, “We’re providing opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to value empirically informed decisions, achieve an awareness, and heighten their passion for wildlife conservation. Because who knows? One of these students could be the next director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. If you don’t provide those opportunities, maybe they’re going to follow their secondary passion, which isn’t as linked to informing change.” Through continued examination of the rhetorical and political strategies of wildlife governance, Serenari aims to give the next generation of social change agents and wildlife stewards the tools they need to grow consensus around protecting vulnerable species, before it’s too late.

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