Attempts to foster human-wildlife coexistence through education are more successful when they communicate both the benefits of living with wildlife and strategies for preventing wildlife problems.
Education is an attractive choice for managers trying to reduce human-bear conflicts because it addresses the causes of conflict and tends to be publicly acceptable (compared to more aggressive management). However, educational campaigns can be ineffective, or worse, detrimental, if not designed carefully. To find the most effective way to present information to the public, researchers in Ohio conducted a controlled experiment that tested the effect of different educational messages on residents’ acceptance of black bears.
Study participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 groups, and each was shown a different type of message related to black bears:
1) bear facts only (control)
2) bear facts and how to prevent bear problems (risks)
3) bear facts and the benefits of bears (benefits)
4) bear facts, how to prevent bear problems, and the benefits of bears (combined)
After viewing the materials, participants answered questions to measure their acceptance of black bears around their homes and in the state. These acceptance scores were compared with each person’s score from the same questionnaire taken 2 years prior (i.e., before receiving the educational message vs. after).
Based on the pre-post test, there was no change in acceptance for the control and risk-only messages (groups 1 and 2). There was a significant increase in acceptance of bears for people exposed to the benefits message (group 3), and an even greater increase for those exposed to the combined message (group 4).
Results suggest that education campaigns that focus on basic wildlife biology or recommendations for reducing conflict are not sufficient for promoting wildlife acceptance – in fact, outreach focusing only on avoiding conflicts can actually decrease acceptance of the species. If the goal is to increase the public’s tolerance for wildlife, managers and educators may have more success by crafting messages that include the benefits of wildlife (e.g., cultural, recreational, and ecological importance) alongside necessary strategies to reduce conflict (e.g., secure garbage cans and remove bird feeders).
Slagle, K., Zajac, R., Bruskotter, J., Wilson, R., & Prange, S. (2013). Building tolerance for bears: A communications experiment. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 77(4), 863–869. https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.515