Dealing Effectively with Conflict in Wildlife Conservation

Photo by ADF&G

Every fish and wildlife management agency must address a wide variety of conflicts on a regular basis. Indeed, the ability to effectively conserve and manage many wildlife species is closely tied to the competence of fish and wildlife managers in addressing these conflicts successfully. That’s why this article is dedicated to providing some best practices, strategies and tools that can strengthen your chances of achieving constructive, positive resolutions to conflicts large and small.

“Conflict prevents the ossification of the social system by exerting pressure for innovation and creativity.”  Lewis Coser, 66th president of American Sociological Association; his research studied the functions of social conflict.

Understanding Conflicts

Conflicts happen. Disagreements are an inevitable outcome of human interaction, and it’s easy to take conflicts personally. However, it helps to remember that often entrenched conflicts are due to social  conflicts  that  have little to do with the reasons expressed.  A  wildlife  conflict may even become a surrogate for a deeper social conflict between people and groups—not solely conflicts between people and wildlife, or conflicts between people about wildlife.

To achieve long-term conservation success, fish and wildlife managers must deepen their understanding of social conflicts and rethink the way they approach their stakeholder engagement processes, according to Francine Madden, Co- Founder and Executive Director of Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration. Her global nonprofit organization integrates best practice standards in analyzing and transforming deep-rooted social conflict in the conservation field.

Together with Brian McQuinn, Madden co-authored an article for Biological Conservation, entitled “Conservation’s Blind Spot: The Case for Conflict Transformation in  Wildlife Conservation.Madden also was a speaker at OWP’s October 2014 workshop on “Lightning Rod Issues and Wicked Problems.”

“Too often wildlife managers fail to recognize or reconcile the deep-rooted conflict among stakeholders, and the conservation efforts are hindered,” explains Madden, who has handled high-profile wildlife conflicts for more than 18 years. “Typically, this failure happens for two reasons. First, the analysis is limited to the dispute itself, and takes an incomplete account of the deeper social conflicts often entangled in this dispute. Second, there is a tendency to negotiate short-term, superficial solutions to these complex conflicts without also fully engaging with the deeper sources of social conflict.”

The traditional model for conservation conflict resolutions tends to focus on physical and spatial measures (e.g., fences or bee hives), economic fixes (e.g., incentives or financial compensation for losses), legal actions (e.g., laws protecting wildlife) and biological methods (e.g., impacts on wildlife population of lethal controls).

However, as Madden explains, “Conservation conflicts often serve as proxies for disagreements over more fundamental, non-material, unmet social and psychological needs, such as status and recognition, dignity and respect, power and sense of identity,” she says. “Without understanding how previous decisions were determined and implemented, as well as the influence of deeper-rooted social and psychological facts, the overall conflict may move further toward intractability.”

Conflict Transformation is “a capacity to envision… [and] a willingness to respond [to]… conflict positively, as a natural phenomenon that creates potential for constructive growth.” John Paul Lederach, Professor of International Peacebuilding, University of Notre Dame

Transforming Conflict

A more effective approach for dealing with these types of deeply rooted situations is to employ conflict transformation. Unlike traditional conflict management approaches, conflict transformation seeks to move from an “us versus them” attitude to a “we” approach. Conflict transformation looks beyond the obvious dispute and at the social, psychological and systemic root causes of the conflict instead.

Conflict transformation addresses both the problem and the deeper social conflicts, as well as establishes mechanisms to address future disagreements as well.

Reviewing Levels of Conflict

Photo by Dave Menke

Conflict can occur at three levels. Understanding these levels of conflict can help wildlife managers analyze the complexity, scope and depth of various wildlife conflicts, according to Madden.

Dispute: This is the most obvious, straightforward manifestation of the disagreement. An example would be a dispute over cattle grazing rights on public land.

“Another way to look at a dispute is to compare it to a car accident in a minor fender-bender, between two strangers,” says Madden. “Disputes are often handled with a settlement, such as who is going to pay for the damage. Conservation conflicts, however, are often more than just simple disputes, which is why a problem can remain or even escalate if it’s not settled.”

Underlying Conflict: The second level of conflict tends to result from past incidents, which may not be obvious. A history of unresolved disputes often leads to underlying conflicts, and there is probably resentment about past decisions among the parties.

“In this car accident example, imagine the drivers are not strangers; they are a couple who recently finalized an acrimonious divorce,” says Madden. “With an underlying conflict between this divorced couple the car accident is likely no longer just about a bent fender. We can expect a wider range of possible reactions, with a greater potential for escalation or repercussions.” At this point, resolution between parties is needed to repair underlying conflicts.

Identity Conflict: This third level of conflict addresses the values, beliefs or social-psychological needs, which are central to one or more of the parties’ identities. Identity conflict is what creates an “us versus them” stance in  conflict. With identity conflicts, people will take extraordinary measures to win, even if taking extreme measures is not in their best interest.

“Imagine our car accident now takes place between a Serb and Croat in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the aftermath of the war in 1996,” adds Madden. “The tension would probably far exceed either of the previous examples. Our drivers may never have met each other. Yet, they are likely to make prejudicial assumptions and judgments based on the other’s group affiliation.” By now, reconciliation is required.

Conflict Intervention Triangle

Madden encourages fish and wildlife managers to consider this conflict intervention triangle when dealing with conflicts. In her model, the roles of the process, relationships and substance have equal value.

Substance: The dispute level conflict, as described above and in the Three Levels of Conflict.

Process: The issues related to the decision-making process, including how and by whom the decisions were made.

“Parties might agree with the merits of a particular solution, but if they do not feel their concerns or input were sufficiently recognized in the process, they may reject any decision reached, even a decision to employ a solution that addresses their substantive concerns,” reports Madden.

On the other hand, “parties are more likely to accept decisions not fully in line with their views or values if they felt genuinely respected and invested in a decision-making process.”

Process mattered more than analysis of potential solutions
in determining the quality of outcomes by a factor of six,
according to a study of 1,048 critical business decisions over five years.
(Lovallo, D., Sibony, O., 2010, The Case for Behavioral
Strategy, McKinsey Quarterly, Boston)

Relationships: This addresses the perceived lack of respect and trust between individuals and groups. It can include communities working against conservation authorities, or even conservation groups competing against each other for the same goals.

“The relationship basis for conflict is too often ignored, avoided or treated too lightly by conservation and government authorities,” explains Madden. “Yet experience suggests that stakeholders will undervalue or even sabotage conservation solutions, if they do not also meet deeper social and psychological needs, including those met through relationships.”

Madden calls for a reorientation of conflict among fish and wildlife managers. “A good process gives attention to the dialogue and relationship-building needed to foster dignity, respect and trust among stakeholders,” she urges.

“A good process also creates the space and opportunity for a reconciliation of deep-rooted social conflicts. In conflict transformation, we advocate ‘going slow to go fast.’ “

That means if you want long-term success resolving conflicts, fish and wildlife managers need to pay as much attention to the decision-making process and relationship components of a conservation conflict as they do the substance.

“Resolving conflict is rarely about who is right. It is about acknowledgment and appreciation of difference.” Thomas F. Crum

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