When you think of living close to wildlife in Teton County, what comes to mind? Is it a memory that warms your heart, like that majestic sunrise that your family shared with a pronghorn herd at Mormon Row? The local fox that you named James, pouncing nose-first into the snow? Or perhaps negative images surface: moose and tourists alike spooked by an off-leash dog along Cache Creek, cars colliding with elk on Highway 22, or grizzly bears that mistook your low-hanging bird feeder for a seed-filled piñata. Maybe you imagine mule deer trotting outside of your living room windows or raptors soaring overhead – the spectacular moments that simply feel like an everyday part of life in this region.
Living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) with wild animals as our nearby neighbors and most recognizable icons, we all have our own experiences and ideas of what beneficial and harmful interactions with wildlife look like. This is true of both individuals and institutions: a glance at the GYE’s many conservation nonprofits, Native tribes, ranching organizations, land-use managers, businesses, and recreationists reveals a multitude of interconnected and competing visions of what our relationship to wildlife is, and what it should be in the future. Although there is a tendency in everyday conversation, news media, and scientific research to focus on moments of conflict* between humans and wildlife, I suggest that we as a community must devote greater attention to coexistence. We must ask ourselves: what exactly does it mean for humans and wildlife to coexist? How can we choose actions that improve, not impair, coexistence? And how will we know if we are making progress toward it? Our collective challenge is to bring together our shared and diverse values concerning wildlife into a coherent, inclusive, and, ultimately, effective vision of human-wildlife coexistence.
One notable development in defining our coexistence with wildlife is the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan, first approved in 2012 and recently updated in 2020. The Comprehensive Plan, formed from broad community input, distills three common values of the region into a vision to “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.” Principle 1.1 of the plan – the very first item discussed – is to “Maintain healthy populations of all native species,” emphasizing that “the wildlife that is central to our ecological, social, and economic character requires an intact ecosystem.” Although the scope of this document is broader than human-wildlife coexistence alone, these principles affirm that human wellbeing in Teton County depends upon the state of wildlife populations, and vice versa. The Comprehensive Plan thus represents a valuable reference point in considering what human-wildlife coexistence means to each and all of us.
Teton County is not alone in the ongoing process of questioning its relationship to wildlife. The towns of Banff and Canmore, Alberta – with their mountainous National Parks, abundant wildlife, and ever-growing income inequality – have much in common with Jackson. In 2018, Banff and Canmore released the Bow Valley Human-Wildlife Coexistence Report, which describes an aspirational, yet measurable and achievable, vision of human-wildlife coexistence. With extensive involvement of the public, experts, and stakeholders, this report aims to promote coexistence by minimizing conflict between people and wildlife, restoring functioning habitat areas, supporting safe and responsible lifestyles, and ensuring transparency in decision making. Coexistence metrics including effectiveness of wildlife crossings and rates of wildlife-related citations were assessed using the latest local data, backing up their vision with an evidence-based roadmap toward their goals. The Bow Valley report places Banff and Canmore at the forefront of mountain towns in terms of envisioning, enacting, and evaluating change specifically around human-wildlife coexistence.
Additional perspective on coexistence can be found worldwide: a recent WWF and UN Environment Programme report on the global state of human-wildlife coexistence gives examples from Myanmar, Norway, Namibia, Bolivia, Nepal, and other nations balancing the costs and benefits of living with wildlife. Although different contexts and conceptions of human-wildlife interactions exist in each of these countries, common management challenges and best practices can be gleaned from the situations collectively. One notable conclusion is that the advancement of coexistence does not imply that conflict disappears altogether; rather, it requires the reduction of conflict to levels where risks and damages are tolerable to human and wildlife populations alike. Furthermore, this report reminds us that “Some communities, especially of Indigenous peoples, may still live relatively harmoniously with wildlife and have long-established cultural practices and traditions that enable them to coexist.”
Whether we draw inspiration from far away or close to home, Teton County’s vision of human-wildlife coexistence will be unique to this one-of-a-kind place. To help us navigate this enduring experiment of reimagining our interactions with wildlife, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance is renewing the Wild Neighborhoods program. A collaborative effort between local agencies, nonprofits, governments, and community members, the Wild Neighborhoods program provides Teton County residents with information and resources regarding proactive measures to reduce conflicts with wildlife and prepare for wildfire. The program has lain dormant in recent years, yet interactions between human and wildlife populations have only increased, necessitating more investment in strengthening and protecting our Wild Neighborhoods.
A major new initiative of the Wild Neighborhoods program is the creation of the first-ever Jackson Hole Wildlife Coexistence Monitoring Report. Based on existing examples like the Bow Valley and WWF/UNEP reports, yet rooted in the local context of Teton County, this project will use the latest data to measure and track how our community is succeeding, and ways that we could improve, in our coexistence with wildlife. Much of the information already exists in the public realm – records on vehicle-wildlife collisions, wildlife disease prevalence, and outcomes of human encounters with wildlife, to name a few topics the report will cover – but has never been united into one document that provides an overall look at the state of coexistence. Perhaps most importantly, interviews with local stakeholders will inform the central vision of the report, allowing the Alliance to gain a broader sense of what human-wildlife coexistence means to the people who live, work, and play near the wildlife of Teton County. This evolving and multi-faceted community vision of coexistence will establish a goal of what we want our relationship with wildlife to be, and the Wildlife Coexistence Monitoring Report will help to get us there.
As work continues on the Wildlife Coexistence Monitoring Report and other initiatives of the Wild Neighborhoods program, keep checking back at https://wildneighborhoods.org/ for updated information on how to keep your neighborhood and the wildlife in it safe! Simple actions – like switching to bear-resistant trash containers, planting native, less-combustible vegetation, and mounting bird feeders out of reach of hungry wildlife – go a long way toward reducing conflict and improving coexistence between the humans and wildlife that call Teton County home.
By: Grant Gallaher