Conservation wants to preserve nature as it is while wildlife management seeks to maintain responsible levels for animal populations. There is a reasonable balance. In Pennsylvania, for example, there are plenty of state and national park acres but hunting is big business and the fees pay for biologists and state nature management.
In the United Kingdom, science is more controversial. Everything from hunting to GMOs to vaccines have been the subjects of well-funded activist campaigns against them. But in at least one area of wildlife management, there may be compromise. A standoff between grouse managers and hen harrier conservationists has one of the UK's most bitter and contentious wildlife conflicts. Grouse managers want to maximize the number of birds and predation by hen harriers is a threat to that. Hen harriers eat grouse and can't be legally killed, yet despite being legally protected they have all but disappeared on moorland managed for grouse hunting due to being shot. There were no breeding harriers in England in 2013.
A quota scheme provides a possible solution.
Led by Professor Steve Redpath of the University of Aberdeen, a recent study brought together grouse managers, conservationists and ecologists to discuss hunting as a tool for animal population control. The model they created showed that at certain population densities, harriers can co-exist with profitable grouse shooting. According to Redpath: "The model suggested that across the grouse moors of England there was room for 70 pairs of hen harriers at relatively low cost for grouse shooting."
This could be achieved using a simple approach, where when harriers breed at levels that have a significant economic impact on grouse shoots, the excess chicks would be removed from the grouse moors, reared in captivity and then released into the wild elsewhere. Similar schemes are used in continental Europe where harriers breeding in crops are threatened by harvesting.
The next step is for grouse managers and conservationists to use the results of the model to agree on an acceptable number of harriers and then test the idea in a field trial.
"Any decision about how to use this model depends as much on politics as on science. However, if both sides are interested in pursuing the idea, this model provides a framework for this dialogue to take place," says Redpath.
Despite polarised positions and lack of trust, the research shows that by involving both parties and testing the effectiveness of various solutions, ecology can help resolve wildlife conflicts – which can have dramatic impacts on people's lives and livelihoods – worldwide.
"Ecology has a vital role to play in understanding and tackling these conflicts by providing impartial evidence and exploring various technical solutions. However, this must be done with those involved in the conflict so that science addresses the issues people are most concerned about, and that they therefore have ownership of the results," he says.