Wolves in Yukon – forming consensus over a controversial issue

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Heart of the case

The man-wolf relationship is a highly controversial issue, bringing head to head attitudes and stances of animal conservationists and hunters, besides other local inhabitants who may feel threatened by the expansion of the wolf population. In Yukon, a public consensus on the method and rules for treating wolves in future has been reached at the regional level in spite of strong opinions on either side.

Historically, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) was the most widespread big mammal on Earth except man. Unlimited hunting, the use of poisons and destruction of natural habitat have led to a dramatic decrease in the gray wolf’s numbers. Today, vital populations remain notably in Canada, Alaska and Russia. [1] Thanks to re-introduction schemes and protection, wolves have recently come back even to areas where people have grown totally unaccustomed with contact with the big predator. The Yukon case shows a possible solution to controversies concerning the issue of increasing population of this predator.

Yukon is the westernmost territory of Canada with a large tract of wilderness. The population density is a mere 0.07/km2 with a population of less than 34 thousand, a non-negligible portion of which are indigenous Indian peoples (approx. 7 thousand). [2] Since the 1920s, wolves were exterminated systematically using poisons. This method was banned in 1972 and the wolf population began renewing to reach approx. 4.5 thousand in 1990. At the same time, the numbers of reindeer declined dramatically. [1]

The response of the public administration advisory body (Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board) was a proposal for immediate radical regulation of the wolf population. This decision provoked a strong negative reaction on the part of animal conservationists, including at the international level. The regulation scheme was put on hold by decision of the public administration institutions (Yukon Department of Natural Resources Management) and a team was set up and tasked with developing a Yukon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. The adoption of the Plan without major modifications was promised by the state.

Five months after the first meeting of the team of nine selected representatives of both extreme and neutral positions on wolf regulation, the Plan was ready and submitted to public administration for approval. However, since a political change at the local Department of Natural Resources Management had taken place, the Plan was first rejected in 1992 with the new Minister proposing immediate radical regulation of the wolves. However, the Plan had been widely consulted with the public during its development, and therefore had great public support. Eventually, the public opposition forced the Department to change its decision and adopt the Plan. [1]

Actors – local players

Opponents of regulation

  • animal protection activists (including international) who are activated during protests and blockades against wolf hunting; they are absolutely against any regulation;
  • nature conservation organisations: a more temperate attitude, interest in establishing a broadly accepted plan based on scientific knowledge and ensuring a long-term perspective for a sustainable ecosystem, in which wolves certainly have a part. From initial opposition to the regulation, their critical attitude was moderated to support the plan that was eventually adopted. Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yukon Conservation Society

Undecided/ambivalent

  • representatives of indigenous Indian peoples – a strong local community, interested in maintaining an ecosystem balance with abundant hunting opportunities. Not decidedly against human interventions (traditionally killed pups as a regulation in periods of wolf overpopulation), but the wolf is also of spiritual value to them, so it cannot be “disgraced” by, e.g., hunting off helicopters or using poisons. First Nation Council
  • state, public administration – the power to decide, initiator of the planning process, organiser, who was not directly involved in the preparatory team negotiations and provided it with maximum authority. Ambivalent role due to the political changes on the ministerial chair, eventually against the plan implementation, but forced by public criticism to adopt it.
  • scientists – actively involved: assignment by the state, fundament influence on the design of the plan negotiation process, organisers, but with minimum interference with the team negotiations (biologist Robert Hayes and political scientist Larry DuGuay)
  • local majority public: regional population only 34 thousand, important actor with strong representation of both hunters and conservationists, capable of expressing support to the proposed plan after it was rejected by the public administration, by means of organisations on both ends of the opinion range. During the plan development, the public was consulted via numerous public discussions on each draft version alongside publication of the drafts in the media and enabling of feedback by anyone interested. Thanks to this transparent development process, the sporadic protesters against the plan implementation were no longer local inhabitants.
  • preparatory team: fundamental role in negotiation, creator of the plan and rules for treating the wolves; total of 8 people and a facilitator. The team was put together to contain representatives of each school of opinion but not organisations (additional selection criteria: number of indigenous peoples’ representatives, numbers of men and women, representatives of consumer and non-consumer utilisation of wildlife)

Advocates of maximum regulation

  • notably sports hunters and hunting guides – the wolf is mostly viewed as vermin, endangering the population of the ungulates and the ecosystem balance. Actively marshalled under the refusing position to the draft versions of the Plan under the auspices of the Yukon Fish and Game Association, the largest local organisation uniting sports hunters. However, this organisation supported the adoption of the Plan in the end thanks to the public consultation and commenting on the progressive draft versions. As with the conservationists, opposition only remains against those with radical views.

Role of science and scientists

  • Negotiation process design: from collecting experience with identical cases to setting criteria for team member selection to developing an agenda with specific goals and outcomes. Support to negotiation, if requested, especially provision of scientific information and feedback on the outcomes. These included a political scientist experienced in public participation in decision-making processes, and a biologist: specialist on wolves. Both were assigned by the local Department of Renewable Resources.

Communications

  • Constructive negotiation did not take place in the public realm, the communication was mediated and the relationships conflicting (pressure to regulate wolves against protests by animal conservationists and calls for a boycott to tourism in Yukon), without willingness to negotiate and make compromises.
  • Communication within the preparatory team totally open, face-to-face, a will for consensus and adherence to the commitment to find a solution in spite of conflict situations.

Conclusion

A positive impact on the environment and the local community. Successful negotiation and implementation of a plan that clearly defined rules for treating wolves in Yukon for the next 20 years and was positively accepted by the majority of the public (a new Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was adopted in 2012). The rules were set with long-term goals, taking into account the sustainable development of the ecosystem and wolves within it. [3]

Factors influencing the success of the project

A design well prepared by experts making use of experience of similar processes:

  • The preparatory team enjoyed absolute trust from the start, was well appraised and received an assurance from the Minister at the beginning at the negotiation process that the plan would be implemented without major modifications.
  • The role of the state and the scientists during the negotiation was limited to organisers and providers of required information, without intervening in the negotiations as such.
  • The team did not feature representatives of any organisations or delegates of organised groups, for whom it would have been difficult to cast aside their party affiliation and speak for themselves. They were primarily representatives of attitudes, not social groups.
  • The meetings were non-public; the presence of media and public would fetter communication.
  • The outcomes of all the meetings and, above all, the draft plans were subjected to broad public debate and the feedback was taken into consideration.
  • An emphasis was put on the final product, not the process: a clear date was set for the plan submission, with an emphasis on consensus, not majority agreement. Consensus is a result that each of the participants is willing to accept because it includes their basic requirements. [1]

References/Literature