What if species conservation leads to conflict?

The rise of nature conservation during the last century was a response to the weak environmental situation. Many animal species were declining, and conservationists strove to save them from extinction. Protection has worked for several species and population numbers have grown. This is obviously a good thing for the species, but can conservation offer an answer, if protection leads to conflict?

© Sari Holopainen

Barnacle geese have damaged e.g. Helsinki university research fields © Sari Holopainen

Big bird conflicts

Geese were the first group that I encountered this problem with. Many geese species have been strictly conserved due to population decreases. For some species conservation has worked so well that population increases have exceeded the tolerance limits of farmers. I read a text discussing the flexibility of conservation and management: if conservation targets are achieved, are we able to modify conservation-based management, if this is possible?  Geese-induced crop damages in particular have increased, and now geese also cause problems in cities. The populations of whooper swans and cranes have also increased in Finland, and they have caused crop damage. The conflicts between birds and farmers have been solved by paying farmers compensations, but other arrangements should also be utilized in the long term. One method is to attract for example cranes to certain fields, where they do not cause uncontrollable damage. When it comes to game species, the relationship between conservation and hunting should be considered. For example, legalizing the hunting of barnacle geese has been suggested in Finland, but is currently not realized. On the contrary, barnacle geese can be hunted to prevent crop damages in neighboring Estonia.

Eider breeding is in trouble © Sari Holopainen

Eider breeding is in trouble © Sari Holopainen

Even a protected predator eats meat

The dilemma becomes especially difficult when the protection of one species leads to a conflict in the protection of another species. Such a situation can evolve for example between a prey and its predator. Saving the white-tailed eagle from extinction in Finland is one of the great success stories of Finnish nature conservation. However, according to new research, eagles are one reason why eider populations have declined in the Finnish archipelago. Due to predation some islands have effectively lost their entire nesting eider populations. Eagles also utilize eider broods swimming at sea. However, the effect of the eagle is not so simple: on the other hand eagles control the American mink, which is an extremely harmful alien species destroying eider nests. In addition to eagles, eiders are also threatened by the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea and ecosystem changes connected to salt rate changes. If the eider population continues to decline, managers must evaluate the hunting possibilities of this traditional game species, although it might be not enough to solve the complicated problems facing the species.

A conflict situation has also appeared between the wolf and Finnish forest reindeer, both endangered species. There are only two populations of forest reindeers in Finland occurring in Kainuu and Suomenselkä. The growth of the Kainuu population has ceased after an increase of the wolf population in the area. Calf production has dropped, some of the traditional production areas are now empty, and the most important reason for the death of collared female forest reindeer is wolves. But as with the eider, changes have also occurred in the environment of the forest reindeers. Due to forest industry, forests are becoming younger, which has a positive effect on the moose, thus supporting dense wolf populations. As a result the forest reindeer suffers:  younger forests are not an optimal habitat for the species, and they suffer more from predation because moose is the more common species.

Calf mortality is observed to be worryingly high in Kainuu forest reindeer population. Calf  in Korkeasaari Zoo in Helsinki © Sari Holopainen

Calf mortality is observed to be worryingly high in Kainuu forest reindeer population. Calf in Korkeasaari Zoo in Helsinki © Sari Holopainen

Trees form a forest

These are good examples of how the protection of one species can be surrounded by complicated ecological impacts, not even to mention human dimensions. These connections should be considered when planning conservation. The question becomes especially timely if protection is successful. The conversation around conservation issues (at least for me) fairly often appears as straightforward, where risks and threats are recognized, but these complicated impacts could be more underlined. What to do if one species begins threatening another, or when a population increase causes damages? Are we able to understand the entire situation and work with the whole palette of tools available to reach the best conclusion, or do we just slide into polarized debate with no constructive solutions to offer? One example of such creative management issues occurs in Finland, where wolf hunting is currently allowed to increase the value of the wolf as a game animal. Concurrently it is hoped that attitudes towards the wolf will become better and wolf poaching will decrease. We are currently waiting for the results of this experiment.

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