When it comes to managing nature, humans aren’t naturals.

“We have this idea that if you just took your hands off the system, put a fence around what you want to conserve, it would go back to a natural state,” said Paul Robbins, a University of Wisconsin-Madison geographer and natural resource management scholar. “But everything inside the fence is going to change anyway. It turns out, if you don’t want things to change, you have to do lots of things instead of not doing things.”

That’s especially true where wild animals are involved. Whether endangered species like grizzly bears or popular game animals like elk, Robbins said people have to make some tough choices to keep those critters on the landscape. They may have to spend money or change policy. Or they may decide to let some creatures disappear as they’re overwhelmed by habitat loss, livestock conflicts, population collapse or failure to compete with more successful newcomers (Montana wolves, for example).

“You’re turning knobs on a very complex machine with lots of downstream side effects,” Robbins said. “But we’re going to be tinkering with nature in a big way for the next two centuries. Even if we solved our carbon pollution problem today, there’s at least 100 years of warming already built into the system.”

That should encourage people who consider themselves environmentalists to invite new and different players to their conservation efforts.

“What I’ve found is if you care about endangered species, you have to care about landowners,” Robbins said. “They’re an intrinsic part of how you craft environments to promote the wildlife you want.”

Robbins was visiting the University of Montana’s Institute on Ecosystems on Wednesday to lecture about “Producing Wildlife in Montana, India and beyond: Conservation in the Anthropocene.” He was also collecting interviews with area ranchers and wildlife managers for an online course he’s developing called “The Land Ethic Reclaimed: Perceptive Hunting, Aldo Leopold and Conservation.”


Most of Robbins’ experience has been in India. While that seems exotic to a Montana audience, he countered the problems and players share more similarities than you’d expect.

For example, one of the biggest factors in preserving endangered amphibians and birds in India is the behavior of farmers. Some of the most successful habitats for those species turn out to be plantations where coffee and rubber are grown – not the national parks and wildlife preserves the Indian government has been creating.

And while Westerns often assume India has an exploding population, Robbins said one of the biggest wildlife challenges is the loss of workers in its agricultural regions. As the farming community workforce shrinks, the farmers’ use of pesticides and herbicides increases. That tends to hammer the wild animals that otherwise quietly coexist on the agricultural landscape.

Similar things are happening in Montana’s farm and ranch country, where counties with those traditions have seen the greatest loss of population over the last several census reports. But Robbins pointed to examples like the Blackfoot Challenge northeast of Missoula, where landowners have organized a livestock carcass removal service that gets dead cattle out of the fields before they can attract grizzly bears. The program is credited with significantly reducing grizzly conflicts without imposing excessive burdens on the ranchers’ operations.

“It’s that kind of practical stuff that Americans are so good at,” Robbins said. “We’re really bad at dealing with spiritual or ideological arguments. We should play to our strengths.”

A problem with that strategy is while it works well at small scales like the Blackfoot Valley or an Indian coffee plantation, it tends to fall apart when it moves to higher levels of government. Robbins advised being very careful about who to team up with when working on wildlife management decisions. He recommended looking for people who have physical, practical stakes in the debate, especially the people who own the land, who make their living from it, or who have direct political responsibility connected to it.

“Look for the people who have to keep the lights turning on and off or who pick up the garbage,” he said. “Mayors and governors tend to be very pragmatic. Legislators are not. Look for the industries that are most linked to these issues, like insurance and construction. You want them to convene the conversation. It’s an exercise in political ecology.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.