By Rachel Goldstein

Rachel Goldstein is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.

As a Canadian, I’ve had the privilege of coexisting with wildlife from a very young age. Spending my summers at Charleston Lake Provincial Park (CLPP) in Ontario, I would anxiously await the early signs of summer, not only for the warm temperatures, but because that is when the turtles would begin making their annual pilgrimage to the perfect nesting spot. Driving to CLPP, where I eventually started working as a naturalist, I was often late because I had stopped yet again to help a snapping turtle safely cross the road (which, it turns out, is a valid excuse for a naturalist to be late). Later in my life, I moved to Alberta, where I could observe grizzly bears rearing their cubs and foraging for berries. I got to hear elk bugle and was once lucky enough to see a lynx carefully picking its way across the Icefields Parkway. 

The one thing that united all of these positive experiences is they were all on my terms. I chose to observe or interact with wildlife. Coexisting with wildlife is never as glamorous when a racoon topples your garbage bin or a grey ratsnake decides to set up camp in your shed. In these instances, it no longer feels like coexisting; it feels like conflict. But in reality, we do not get to decide when to peacefully coexist and when to evict an endangered snake from a shed-turned-hibernaculum. It is in these instances that I remind myself that the wildlife is not encroaching on me, I have encroached on wildlife.

From Conflict to Coexistence

When I began my research into the topic of human-wildlife coexistence (HWC), I originally thought of the ‘C’ in HWC as ‘conflict’. I had always looked at this topic as resolving the conflict between humans and wildlife. The more I delved into HWC and re-examined my own relationship with wildlife, however, the more I realized it is not conflict resolution we should be seeking, but coexistence. My research quickly led me down the path of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)[1]. In parks and conservation, greater effort is being made to move beyond the colonial approach to conservation and towards traditional knowledge. In a way, we are moving backwards from colonial conservation and reverting to a way of conservation that Indigenous people have been facilitating for millennia. When I began to look at human-wildlife coexistence from a TEK lens, it became clear that the problem is not that humans and wildlife exist in the same space, the problem is that we do not know how to harmoniously coexist in this space.

Elk on road with vehicles in Banff National Park.
Photo by Touann Gatouillat Vergos /

Human-wildlife conflict is defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) HWC Task Force as something that “occurs when animals pose a direct and recurring threat to the livelihood or safety of people, leading to the persecution of that species. Retaliation against the species blamed often ensues, leading to conflict about what should be done to remedy the situation”[2]. In recent decades, HWC has shifted from a narrative of ‘problem’ animals to an anthropocentric narrative of human-human conflict. The IUCN considers HWC as an issue of multiple stakeholders including conservationists, parks, Indigenous communities, farmers, landowners, tour companies, and so on, with conflicting interests over the land and wildlife. The diversity of stakeholders coupled with the diversity of wildlife has led to a need for multiple approaches to HWC, even within Canada.

Human-wildlife coexistence can take many forms, as can the conflicts that arise from such coexistence. HWC can have significant impacts on human and wildlife welfare, both positive and negative. Some negative impacts include loss of biodiversity, diminished ecosystem health, loss of human life, disease transmission, economic losses, particularly relating to agriculture and farming, and, in extreme circumstances, species extinction. Positive impacts are often less tangible and can include ecosystem services, increased human mental and physical wellbeing, economic growth due to tourism, increased empathy towards wildlife, and connection to nature [3,4].

HWC Programs You Should Know About

Across Canada, different programs have been developed to assist with HWC so that conservation and human activity are both prioritized, without one taking undue precedence over the other. These programs range in every way imaginable; they are diverse in order to accommodate the diverse ecology of Canada. Wildsmart in the Bow Valley, AB focuses on unavoidable human encounters with wildlife when recreating in the area. The Eco-Whale Alliance in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park provides resources for whale-watching guides and tour companies so that they may be sustainable stewards of the land, rather than simply consumers. The Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill, MB, protects townspeople and tourists from the annual migration of polar bears through the town towards arctic sea ice, while ensuring safe passage for the bears. 

These HWC programs are running across Canada, boosting tourism economy, protecting people and wildlife alike, and improving the way we coexist with the land. This series of posts profiles the unique and necessary work being done by HWC programs for our benefit. Though there is no single solution to navigating wildlife coexistence, these programs are allowing us to move towards a more peaceful and harmonious relationship with nature.

What programs facilitating human-wildlife coexistence do you think should be highlighted? Please provide the name of the organization in the space below.

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