Faculty Spotlight: Adrian Treves

Understanding conflicts between humans and carnivores

March 28, 2011

Every day is a balancing act for Adrian Treves. He's working with some of the planet's most imperiled carnivores and the people who share the land with them. Standing in the middle of the ensuing cross-fire requires poise.

Treves is an associate professor and founder of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab in the Nelson Institute. Much is riding on his vision to balance carnivore conservation with the protection of human livelihood and safety.

"We're studying a really tricky problem that's happening worldwide," says Treves. "Large carnivores are among the most endangered large mammals on the planet, and that's partly because they're hard to live with, so people have traditionally tried to eradicate them."

One part ecology, one part sociology, his interdisciplinary research follows two strands: studying spatial patterns of conflicts with carnivores and human responses to these conflicts, and measuring attitudes toward carnivore management and policy.

"How can we restore top predators in a human-dominated ecosystem without inflicting intolerable costs on people? We're looking for win-win solutions," Treves says.

Treves' research findings, combined with community engagement, have been applied to help solve conservation problems in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Current projects involve wolves and black bears in Wisconsin, Andean bears in Ecuador and lions and leopards in East Africa (where Treves completed his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1997).

Population Dynamics

Large carnivores are the most challenging species with which to coexist, Treves says, because they threaten people's lives, livelihoods, property and livestock. In response, humans now cause most carnivore mortality worldwide, making large carnivores among the most challenging to conserve.

Gray wolf photo credit USFWS

Two species of large carnivores — the Falklands wolf, a large relative of foxes, and the thylacine or Tasmanian wolf, a marsupial carnivore unrelated to wolves — have gone extinct in recent times, and most have suffered major population reductions, causing serious disruption to ecosystems. Top predators play essential ecological roles and maintain biodiversity.

"They have this cascade of ecological effects," Treves explains. "A whole variety of species are positively affected by the presence of certain top predators."

Treves also studies how people's attitudes and intentions affect their interactions with wild animals. Negative perceptions or resentment toward a predator sometimes exist independently of any cost we experience, he says — a particularly acute problem when it comes to endangered species.

"Because there's few of them in terms of numbers of individuals," Treves says, "people can have a dramatic impact. Negative attitudes that translate into negative interactions could obliterate an endangered population."

Mapping the Future

One hope for reducing negative interactions is found in Treves' novel application of risk maps to predict the location of future wildlife conflicts based on past patterns.

In Wisconsin, he has demonstrated the effectiveness of such models in predicting future wolf attacks on livestock. A paper on the subject authored by Treves and colleagues, and recently accepted for publication in Bioscience, includes a risk map that has an 88 percent predictive accuracy.

This mapping, if expanded globally, could help pinpoint future conflict zones, a major advantage in anticipating where carnivores will suffer retaliation by people.

In Wisconsin, Treves would like to follow the risk maps out over time to see if they can be used to prevent future wolf attacks.

"We're looking for a way to make the predictions of the risk maps real on the ground, to help the farmers who are facing large carnivores," Treves says. "For me, that would be a crowning achievement."

A Symbolic Struggle

Seeing firsthand the impact of wolf attacks on Wisconsin farmers is what first sparked Treves' passion for studying coexistence with carnivores.

In 2000, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources delivered a several-feet-high stack of field reports about wolf attacks on Wisconsin livestock. Included were handwritten letters from the farmers themselves.

"I just found it fascinating — the human side of the story, the emotion that came out of the letters, the anguish, but also sometimes the appreciation they felt," Treves says. "They didn't want to eradicate wolves; they just didn't want them to attack their livestock."

Treves was hooked by the combination of the human element with scientific investigation of the attacks.

"I started asking myself, why don't all wolves do this, why do some of them do this, and why are certain farms hit again and again?" he says. "It piqued my curiosity."

A collaboration was born with the Wisconsin DNR and other stakeholder groups to understand better and to conserve gray wolves, with the partnership now spanning more than ten years. The relationship has allowed for an important test of the integration of applied research into public debate and policy formulation.

"The wolf is a good case because it's one of the least tolerated animals on the planet. There are widespread resentments toward the wolf and toward governments that protect the wolf, so if there's anything one can do to reverse that trend in attitude, we're very interested in understanding it," Treves says.

The Right Fit

The contributions of Treves' students are critical to his lab's success, and he credits both their passion for the conservation of endangered animals and their empathy for the people that live alongside the animals.

The interdisciplinary nature of Treves' work draws student interest from all across campus. In his undergraduate capstone course (Environmental Studies 600, Large carnivore conservation in Wisconsin and around the world), he teaches students from programs such as forestry, wildlife ecology, zoology, biological aspects of conservation, and human ecology.

"I see their appreciation for in-depth understanding of every facet — human dimensions, carnivore ecology… the U.S. and Wisconsin, as well as internationally. They get the whole package and delivered to them in a way that I think is understandable to anybody, from any background," Treves says. "A diverse group of students comes to the table and I ask them to understand diverse views."

In his four years at UW-Madison, Treves says the Nelson Institute has been the perfect fit for his far-reaching conservation work.

"I've found the institute to be a great home for that interdisciplinary look at humans and ecosystems and to do the engagement and applied research that's required," he says.

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