Science-Based Decision Making: An Example from the Russian Far East

An infrared, motion-triggered camera catches poachers spotlighting along an old logging road in Primorye, Russia. Photograph © WCS Russia

This article, written for Earth Day 2017 and in support of the March for Science, first appeared on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Medium page.

I’m a wildlife conservationist and I work in Russia. Here is a tiny example, from that corner of the world that shows how maintaining a grounding in scientific principles benefits both humans and wildlife.

Ternei County (in the Russian province of Primorye) is remote, forested, and sparsely populated. There are few opportunities for steady employment here, with the logging industry being one of the few exceptions. In fact, a single logging company acts as the primary employer in at least four of the ten villages scattered across this 11,000 square mile area.

Over the past thirty years, more and more of Ternei County have been opened up for timber harvest, driven by global demand, with logging roads reaching further and further into these forests of pine, oak, and birch.

As a wildlife conservationist I was concerned that poachers were using old logging roads to shoot deer, wild boar, and even tigers, but intuition was not enough to guide change in logging management practice. The forests appear vast and limitless to anyone passing through them, so how can I measure the impact of logging roads?

My team designed a study.

First, using freely-available satellite imagery, we compared the number of forest roads across a thirty-year window. We found that in 1984 there were about 125 miles of road, and in 2014 there were nearly 4,000 miles of road — about a 30-fold increase.

This demonstrated unequivocally that yes — there are more roads now. But how is this necessarily bad for wildlife? Next, we hid motion-triggered cameras along a selection of forest roads to document how many people were using these roads and for what purpose.

We found pictures of recreational use: people walking by with fishing poles, and hunters during the hunting season. But by and large we saw photographs of people spotlighting from vehicles — an illegal activity to hunt deer and other animals — and trucks illegally removing trees.

Until we documented the scope of the problem, the logging company hadn’t viewed these roads to be much of an issue. But after a meeting where we presented these results and offered mitigating solutions, the logging company agreed to partner with us. For the past two years, we’ve been identifying roads no longer needed by the logging company and closing them to vehicular traffic, thereby protecting both wildlife and timber inventory.

An old logging road is “closed” to vehicular access by piling an earthen berm across it. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght/WCS.

This is what the Wildlife Conservation Society does: we base conservation and management recommendations on science; on the data we collect. We seek solutions that work for both people and wildlife, as policies that favor only one and not the other are detrimental to both in the long run.

In my Ternei County example, if we allow unfettered access to the forest to stimulate economic growth, the forests will decimated, resulting in no more jobs for the villagers and no more habitat for wildlife.

On the other hand, if we deem all forests protected and ban human use, the logging industry will collapse and the economy will crash, leading to poverty and even more people in the forests, poaching just to feed their families.

Without the very basic (but very informative) data we gathered on road use, there was no way for anyone to say for sure what was happening in these remote forests. And this lack of information feeds inertia: we don’t have to think about problems if we don’t know they exist. But this does not mean the problems are not real.

Scientific study, even simple research like that described here, gives us an unbiased assessment of a situation. These are facts we then use to inform decision making that benefits both people and wildlife.

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