Our Summer Internship with WWO

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At the end of  their summer internships, WWO asked Elliot Harris, Matthew Chang and Nick Ward to write about their experiences.  WWO is very thankful to these three stalwarts for all the amazing things they accomplished on behalf of WWO and large carnivore awareness in Washington State!  Here it is in their own words:

I met Lorna and Darrell Smith in February of 2015 at an open house that was part of the public scoping phase of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Environmental Impact Statement. After volunteering at Western Wildlife Outreach events in the spring of 2015, Lorna and Darrell gave me the opportunity to intern with Western Wildlife Outreach for the summer of 2015 and help with presentations and booths throughout Western Washington.

Two of my friends and I created a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation, and compiled information about grizzly bears in the contiguous 48 states, and Washington’s North Cascades and Selkirk Mountain Ecosystems specifically. We worked with State Parks, National Forest Visitor Centers, and Summer Camps, to orchestrate informational presentations and booths for groups of all ages. I not only learned a great deal about Washington State’s large carnivores (bears, cougars, and wolves) throughout the internship, but I also learned about some of the central issues that undercut progress on wildlife restoration efforts.

The most notable issue that I learned about was the vast amount of misinformation surrounding conservation projects such as grizzly bear restoration. There were two primary forms of misinformation that I learned to be most detrimental to restoration efforts.

Firstly and most obvious was the vast amount of misinformation about basic wildlife biology and behavior. This is particularly harmful in the case of carnivores because without an understanding of carnivore biology and behavior, people attribute adverse encounters with carnivores to the inherent biology of the carnivores rather than to human behavior that attracts carnivores into close proximity with humans, the most common form of human behavior being poor odor prevention practices. After working at booths this past summer, it quickly became clear that people love to tell stories about potentially dangerous encounters with bears (I am one of these people, as my family has had its share of bear encounters). It is no surprise that as these stories are told and retold, there is a certain amount of embellishment that tends to denounce the behavior of bears and glorify the survival of humans. In the case of many visitors to our booths, there was an ingrained sense of blame towards bears for such encounters, rather than attributing the encounters to human behavior. While it was often difficult to sway the opinions of audiences that firmly adhere to their beliefs, it also provided an opportunity to talk to people about bear safety and bear biology and behavior in an effort to prevent future adverse encounters. This form of basic misinformation proved to be particularly detrimental because it quickly became clear that people were forming their opinions about grizzly bear restoration based off of false information. Once basic facts were clarified, opponents of restoration often left the booth much more receptive to a restored grizzly bear population in Washington. Misinformation about wildlife biology and behavior must be countered by the distribution of accurate, scientific information so that people are able to make informed decisions about their support of conservation projects.

Secondly, there was a lack of understanding about the implications of grizzly bear restoration in Washington’s North Cascades. This was most clearly evidenced by the expectation that a restored grizzly bear population would somehow vastly change life in Washington. However, visitors to our booths often had no clear denotation of a “restored population.” This was a much easier hurtle to overcome because it was as simple as explaining that “a restored population will be a self-sustaining, genetically viable, and disaster-resilient population of 200-400 grizzly bears spread across the 10,000 square mile North Cascades Ecosystem.” For those still skeptical, we simply had to explain that “bear safety practices are the same for black bears and grizzly bears, and the state already has about 25,000 black bears living in habitats closer to humans than grizzly bears, so grizzly bear restoration will not change day-to-day life at all.” Once people realized that having a restored population has no negative consequences, they generally viewed the conservation effort much more favorably. This is, however, only one of many examples of how people did not understand the implications of grizzly bear restoration. It became imperative to offer clear explanations of the implications of grizzly bear restoration in order to allow people to make an informed decision about restoration.

Upon realizing how pervasive misinformation is in wildlife conservation efforts, the importance of Western Wildlife Outreach became much more clear. By “promoting an accurate understanding of large carnivore heritage through education and community outreach in Washington and Idaho,” Western Wildlife is providing the public with the information necessary to make an informed decision about grizzly bear restoration. More so, they are not only providing people with appropriate information, but are also inspiring people to change their behavior when living in proximity to carnivores. This allows humans and carnivores to coexist safely in a wholesome environment. The work of Western Wildlife Outreach is invaluable to the conservation of the Pacific Northwest’s unique ecosystems.

__Elliot Harris, Intern, WWO 2015

Working with Western Wildlife Outreach this summer has been an eye-opening experience. As an organismal biology and ecology major, I’ve always been interested in wildlife ecology and learning about how ecosystems are most effectively managed not by humans, but by the creatures that inhabit them. This summer, we focused on the ecological role of large carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem. By educating ourselves about these animals, we were able to discuss the current effort to restore the grizzly bear population to the North Cascades Ecosystem with the general public. Our outreach was done both by visiting summer camps and answering questions at Western Wildlife Outreach booths. At Tall Timber Ranch alone, we were able to present to about 150 people during two separate sessions (one for high school students, one for junior high students). We were also able to spend time answering individual questions and addressing personal concerns about the current status of bears, wolves, and cougars while working at Western Wildlife Outreach booths. The booths helped attract people with hands-on displays such as skulls, teeth, claws, pelts, and even full grizzly and black bear mounts.  We answered a variety of questions, and addressed a lot of the myths and misinformation surrounding grizzlies in the North Cascades.

It’s been a pleasure to have worked with Lorna and Darrell Smith this summer. Their obvious passion and dedication to all the large carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem is what drives projects and improves the natural areas they love. They also were able to give us some experience and insight as to the life of a wildlife biologist; an invaluable experience for me as that’s a career path I’m considering taking in the future. I’ve learned a lot this summer, and not just about grizzlies but also about how the relationships from USDFW and WDFW exist between non-governmental organizations such as Western Wildlife Outreach.

__Matthew Chang, WWO Intern, 2015

I have found a great deal of pleasure in delivering presentations and spreading the word about the status of grizzly bears and the pressing ecological issues surrounding them. The negative effects to the North Cascades ecosystem (NCE) that will result from the absence of these keystone predators will effect younger generations. Our focus this summer was to involve these younger audiences in the restoration process of grizzly bears in the NCE, so that they may not have to experience the future degradation of this ecosystem. I look forward to seeing the environmental improvement that results from our outreach.

Working with and getting to know Lorna and Darryl Smith on a personal level has been a real pleasure of this internship. I have learned a lot about bears and other large carnivores over these summer months through them. My knowledge of bears prior to this internship was enough to realize how fascinating and impressive these animals are. Now, I truly understand not only how intelligent bears are, but how essential these giant creatures are in their ecosystems. Although my career aspirations as a fine woodworker are somewhat irrelevant when considering this internship, my moral framework and personal interests as an outdoorsman fully support this essential restoration movement as well as Western Wildlife Outreach.

__Nicholas Ward, WWO Intern, 2015