The Bison Cultural Study, From Reintroduction to Reconciliation

William (Bill) Snow

The Bison Cultural Study is about returning a culturally important species to a culturally important landscape. The Plains Bison, or Tatanga, is a part of our origin stories, our ceremonies, our understanding of the world; including its past, present and future. The Bison Cultural study utilizes an Indigenous methodology, “Biculturalism” and an Indigenous process, “Cultural Monitoring” to combine Western Science and Traditional Knowledge, to bring forward knowledge that will add to our current understanding Bison history, cultural significance, and management. In this time of climate change, we hope to reconnect a keystone species to its landscape, while restoring a fractured relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups, in a process that may lead to meaningful reconciliation.

Please click here for the Bison Cultural Study Report.

Research— Does It Make a Difference for Wildlife?

Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.

One of the first bits of research I was involved with was a project to discern the competitive overlap between livestock and elk on forest grazing allotments. My father, a farmer, showed some interest in my budding career as a biologist and asked what I was doing.

I told him I was in the Forest Reserve west of Caroline studying cattle and elk use of grassland with belt transects and counting pellet groups. Part way through this he asked, “What’s a pellet group count?” As I explained, my father who had a remarkable ability for synthesis commented, “You count shit for a living.” It was one of the last times he asked what I was doing, having made his mind up over what biologists do.

I never got a chance to delve into the studies on defecation rates, identification of animal spoor or the selection of transects to remove sampling bias. In retrospect I should have told my dad why it was important to understand the overlap between elk and cattle, not the minutiae of how we studied the issue. Instead of concentrating on the how, I should have addressed the why—answering the “So What?” question.

On the theme of this conference— “Wildlife Research in Action”— I have some thoughts on research and whether it makes a difference for wildlife. In the spirit of disclosure I’m a practitioner, user, advocate and supporter of research. I’m also a skeptic.

There are many definitions of research but the one I like most is “Creative and systemic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge.” Research is the unravelling, sometimes the solving of wildlife mysteries. We undertake research to discern how many critters are there, how many were there, what’s the trend, what are the connections and associations, how do things make a living, how do our human footprints and actions affect them and how do we bring them back from the brink.

We’ve come a long way from the time of Aristotle who believed swallows and other birds hibernated beneath the mud in marshes and others who thought migratory birds flew to the moon and there spent the winter. Even in the early 20th century some were convinced passenger pigeons had pulled up stakes and moved to Australia. But even today we aren’t quite free of such notions. One is we can have our cake and eat it too. So, in spite of much of what I’m going to say, research has made a difference for wildlife.

I want to talk to you mostly about the traction of research, how it is regarded, used to facilitate and inform changes to the way we do things and how we manage wildlife. Hang on tight, it’s a rocky road but there will be some thoughts about how we make research more palatable, more well regarded and more supported.

Going beyond my own experience I asked 30 people from academia, consulting, conservation NGOs and government involved in research activities questions about their experiences.¹ Not surprisingly, they had a lot to say. I’ll summarize to ensure this isn’t a long presentation, akin to a hostage situation.

I will stress, the answers were qualitative, gut level reactions. Some bright light in the audience might want to take on a research project to further assess and build on the degree to which research results find traction in informing and facilitating change.

The first question I asked was— Of the body of research you have been associated with over your career, what proportion resulted in obvious changes in the way natural resources are managed that benefited fish and wildlife?

Not surprising, but disheartening, the answers ranged from zero to less that 50 per cent, with only one outlier greater than 50 per cent. The majority of people reflected that the results were less than 30 per cent.  To be clear, people reflected on success in different ways. Publication alone wasn’t a metric, but in some cases the degree to which the research had been cited was viewed as an incremental step forward in the utility of the findings. Most used a metric that indicated the research had been accepted and resulted in a demonstrably positive influence on the outcome. In other words, something changed that benefited wildlife or their habitats.

Many people reflected first on the instances where research had not found traction. In the nexus between economic development, political priority and ecological illiteracy is where many research results go to die. Research results were sometimes a message that no one wanted to hear. I’m going to circle back to this key factor, so stay tuned.

Based on my own curiosity (and hopefully yours) I next asked was the change relatively immediate or did the change require more research and/or take a considerable amount of time to be implemented? Some context is useful here.

Change due to research is a patient person’s pursuit. You might want to write that down in large block letters.

Here’s one example from history. Scurvy was the scourge of sailors for centuries. In 1497 Vasco de Gama, a Portuguese explorer, discovered a preventative for scurvy in the form of citrus juices. Perhaps as a failure to publish this, innate skepticism or geopolitical factors, these research results were lost. The cure was rediscovered in 1747 by James Lind, a British surgeon. In 1799 the preventative was adopted by the British navy. Elapsed time—302 years.

By the way, beer was once considered a preventative for scurvy but research showed this not to be the case. Beer may have other medicinal qualities but preventing scurvy isn’t one of them. Perhaps beer has value in consoling yourself after my talk.

In something more contemporary, Dave Schindler and a research team started a project to work out what was causing lake eutrophication, and what could be done to stop it. This was the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in Ontario. That work eventually showed that the key to controlling eutrophication in most lakes was to control phosphorus inputs. It was an almost 20 year battle to get effective action to overcome the inevitable blizzard of bullshit from corporate interests once the research results were obtained, published and fought over. Schindler’s ferocious advocacy for the ELA work (and the outstanding quality of the work itself) was essential to success.

My colleagues reflected that some changes in regulations related to fisheries and wildlife conservation happened very quickly, especially if there were no economic implications or impediments to industry. Others required more research and much more time. So change can take a long time. Long is spelled with multiple “Os.” There can be any number of reasons including:

  • The landscape isn’t static and neither are land uses so things like the restoration of sensitive habitats or improving habitat and seeing a population response can take decades.
  • Changes in human behaviour can take a long time as we are by nature resistant to changing our beliefs, especially related to our economic aspirations.
  • Environmental outcomes take political and corporate will, public awareness and support plus the commitment of significant resources, all of which take much time to secure.

As a result of this it is often very difficult to track the impact of research. By the time we start to see restoration take hold, wildlife population shifts or humans change their behaviour, and based on information our research has provided, we have moved on to new research.

Part is due to our funding models. Most research is funded project by project and in most cases, through annual funding cycles. This does not allow for long term evaluation of research impact and this is a serious issue in the environmental research field.

Generally the feeling was that minimum time periods to effect change extended from ten years to over 20. In some cases the time to change went over the career span of some biologists and into the careers of others. You might begin to think of yourselves as links in very long chain of change. This is why it is a patient person’s business.

At this point you are wondering if there is any hope. Yes there is and many of my contacts reflected on research outcomes and findings that had a positive result and traction in effecting change.

While it is difficult to track impact, it is not impossible and the experience of many suggests the research that has resulted in the most significant change or impact has the following characteristics:

First, if it’s been collaboratively created and designed with end-users research can aid in change. When end-users are actively engaged in the process, especially with the “What does a solution look like?” concept, they are more invested in the long-term success and sustainability of the outcomes. When leaders who have influence on policy and implementation are brought in at the start it’s surprising how fast things can change.

Collaborative research allows experts from different disciplines or backgrounds to combine their knowledge, skills and perspectives. This includes landowners and public members. This diversity in expertise often leads to more comprehensive and innovative approaches to problem-solving. Additionally, collaborative research often involves access to a broader range of resources, including funding, equipment, data and facilities. And, if there’s a critical mass asking for change, it’s more likely to occur.

Second, it’s not enough to create data sets, maps, charts, graphs, applied research reports, peer-reviewed articles and executive summaries. Knowledge is not truly made available until the science is in a usable form and shared with decision makers, in the place and time they exist.


Research results require translation and interpretation so it’s available to all. So first it needs to be accessible to the broader community and not just behind peer-reviewed paywalls.  Effective sharing of information requires an array of approaches including committing to public talks, interviews, non-academic writing and other public outreach. This is critical in making what we do relevant.  It gives all participants insights into conservation dilemmas, policy implications, what support tools are necessary and possibly catalyzing community action. 

Thirdly, some of us have found traction at a community level. This has been my experience with Cows & Fish on riparian management and those involved in carnivore management in southwestern Alberta. I’m not suggesting changes were easy or they happened rapidly, but they are happening.

What is crucial to success is listening. Listening to what people have to say, listening to understand rather than to respond, taking those concerns to heart and giving serious thought to ways we might address those concerns through research. It requires being open minded and truly willing to believe that community members hold valuable information—because they do. 

Fourth, research results that quickly gained traction were obviously those where there seemed to be immediate rewards, like additional hunting opportunity or better quality fishing. If there aren’t any economic implications, it could result in a change within a year. Clearly research outcomes had more traction if the research was designed to address a specific management action that had the potential to change practices without “shutting down” the activity completely.

However, once there are economic implications, the wall comes up and science often takes a back seat to jobs, economic opportunity and political posturing. Woodland caribou and native trout would be the poster “species” in this example. Despite hundreds of studies (and ironically,  Alberta hosts the lion’s share for caribou) combined with meta-data analysis, there is a tendency to “prepare plans” while allowing development to continue unabated. Because of research we know more, but because of government and corporate paralysis we do less.

Fifth, there may be detractors, opponents and skeptics of change. So, breaking research tasks into smaller, more inconspicuous pieces is a strategy. These are easier to fund, can be implemented quickly and be disguised as neutral undertakings. Each is an incremental piece of the bigger task and each piece can be easier to gain acceptance of than a larger research initiative. Once completed the package is much more difficult to ignore.

Lastly, conservation actions are more likely to occur because of the dogged pursuit and pressure by individuals who often assume personal costs to achieve this. My scar tissue suggests that the essential ingredients in conservation are continuity and persistence. This is facilitated by networking among biologists. A team approach to take the message to the right players and a champion or two, skilled in strategy to make things happen is essential. Part of this is getting government and corporations to sponsor and support conferences and symposia. For, if you begin to get them to listen to the talk, talk the talk, eventually they will walk the walk.

There’s a lot to unpack in these responses and provide some take home messages about wildlife research in action. The following are what I think is the grist for thought.

There are two somewhat divergent areas to examine in thinking about research, how it influences or fails to influence management. One aspect is social, the other is biological.

First, the social aspects. Conservation is inherently a social endeavour, recognized early by Aldo Leopold. The human dimension is increasingly recognized as fundamental to achieving conservation outcomes. Conservation actions are ideally founded upon scientific evidence that synergistically integrates value-laden experiential, social and traditional knowledge. Identifying both the biological and social dimensions of what works and what does not in projects is essential for designing, implementing, monitoring, evaluating and refining effective conservation.

Science can inform us what has happened, what is happening and what is likely to happen, given trends and trajectories. What science can’t do, it seems, is make us do anything with the information. Research, the science, doesn’t often have traction, not because we lack knowledge but because the perplexing issue isn’t about knowledge but about values. Our view is not the only view and desire for the world. Values vary.

Most issues over wildlife are the result of wildlife responses to problems created by humans.  Humans are messy, greedy, fickle and selfish depending on who you ask. Those very same humans are also loving, caring,  generous and conscientious. These are wicked problems that biologists alone cannot solve unless we are able to frame environmental decisions in terms of human intent and benefit. The worst response a researcher can get isn’t “I don’t agree,” but rather, “I don’t care.”

Research-based recommendations are balanced against political, economic, legal and social forces. That’s one reason research results can be difficult to accept and to incorporate into conservation. It’s not a slam dunk to finish a research paper and have resource managers beating down your door to implement the results.

I’d like you to think about the last time you heard any politician publicly say, about any major land-use issue or problem “What does the science suggest we should do?” There is lots of evidence that most management decisions are not based solely on scientific evidence. Research can be under valued, sometimes ignored and even felt to be unnecessary. Some ideas are not easily conquered with facts.

Consider this quote from a government of Alberta source: “…scientists will continue to conduct research on this issue… This body of science informs the scientific peer-reviewed advice… As new, completed research becomes available, the department will continue to review and incorporate the information as part of a risk-based, science-informed adaptive management process.”

This indicates governments are slow to accept research results, especially if it contradicts current policy. I think sometimes the bureaucratic rule that is followed is—“Many things may be done, but no thing must be done for the first time.” It also cannot be done if industry and the community do not accept it. This defines paralysis.

That’s the reason politics and policy are spelled somewhat the same—politics is where good policy often goes to die. Someone starts up the blender and everything starts to spin into worship at the temple of wishful thinking. The falsehoods  believed are more culturally significant than the facts ignored. Can we really compensate, mitigate, reclaim, restore and find balance? We value our prejudices more than clean water, biodiversity and intact landscapes.

So recognize there are differences in perspectives, perceptions and priorities that need to be acknowledged. Resource managers operate under different demands, constraints, priorities and pressures than those of researchers. If we think science serves as a foundational building block of conservation, this might miss some of the things resource managers are up against.

Another significant issue is that politicians and senior bureaucrats may not have the scientific background to understand and appreciate research results.  Researchers may not appreciate the political, economic and social realities.

This suggests lots of early discussion, determining if there is a shared vision for an outcome. What’s crucial is the development of collaborative association, trust, relationship building and patience. There is the opportunity to test whether the approach is cost effective, relevant and aligns with government or corporate informational needs.

Beyond the  biological dimensions in research design, implementation, monitoring and refining actions to conserve wildlife and their habitats are social ones. This is why I have consistently told young biologists that a degree in ecology or biology isn’t enough. A grounding in sociology and psychology, maybe political science, some experience in used car sales, proficiency in stand up comedy and missionary zeal are also essential elements in success.

On the biological side I could talk about the challenges of dealing with secretive animals, the techniques of observation and population assessment, and the models and modelling to make sense of the data. Capturing the complexity of a wild animal’s life isn’t something that random and periodic observations will allow.

From a process perspective it is typically not a single study that leads to enough information to inform management but rather a series of projects that build a collective body of knowledge to guide change. This can take multiple years to provide the necessary answers.  Its also important to note that a long term commitment to effectiveness monitoring is also important.

The question that frustrates environmental regulators, managers and advocates everywhere is “How much is enough?” Much effort has and continues to be put into the science of thresholds— the identification of indicators and dose-response relationships in order to understand the influence of development pressures on environmental change. But there has been limited success with implementation.

There are two key problems. First, only rarely are there any flashing yellow lights or red ones that demarcate a line between what is “enough’” and ‘”too much.” Instead, what exists is a continuum. The inconvenient truth is that there is no objectively right answer to the question of how much is enough. People want certainty—we give them ranges of impact.

This is because of the second problem, which is a failure to distinguish between setting thresholds—which provide information useful for interpreting the significance of change—and making a decision to limit development. What we get is a mix of scientific knowledge with political feasibility in such a way that one cannot tell where the science stops and political pragmatism takes over. Despite the science of instream flow needs assessment I was told by a water resources bureaucrat that “Fish don’t vote but irrigation farmers do.”

You’d think that targeted research seeking direct answers to management questions would be most useful. But these tend to be narrow in application and although they might help us to cope with a specific research question, they do not help us understand nature more broadly. An important contribution would offer a marriage between ecological theory and application. Instead of understanding how nature works first, we attempt to solve a specific management problem without the broader context.

Lastly, we need the results that effectively identify the barriers and challenges of why research is not aiding better decisions and why desired outcomes for wildlife are not being achieved.

Anecdotal evidence suggests project failures are common in conservation, however a number of studies lament the dearth of published project failures. Such failure experiences could, if identified, analyzed and shared, improve individual and institutional knowledge, promote targeted pragmatic research, and increase the likelihood of effectively navigating from research to implementation.  Someone in this audience should get on with that!

So where to from here?

The business and political worlds see biologists as an odd bunch. Everyone else in engaged in progress, changing the world to meet some economic aspiration. We see progress in negative ways based on what it does to the health, functioning and integrity of ecosystems and to biodiversity.  No wonder we’re at odds with the rest of the world.

I  participated in a land-use hearing to determine the fate of an unroaded, unfragmented piece of the foothills that is core grizzly habitat, a refuge for the now threatened westslope cutthroat trout and a key watershed for ranchers and other downstream water drinkers. I provided my perspective on the importance of the area and on the inability to successfully mitigate the effects of a pipeline constructed through the middle of it.

Under cross examination by the panel, all engineers, the chair, referring to my curriculum vitae, asked me, “How do you get a job like this?” I suppose I could have told him his first mistake was to become an engineer. However, I sensed he wasn’t looking for a career change but rather his comment was an observation that biologists have a fun job, but not a serious one.

We are not yet there in the public mind, as Steward Udall, a former US Secretary of the Interior, observed about the profession: “Over the long haul of life on this planet, it is the ecologists, and not the bookkeepers of business, who are the ultimate accountants.”

The landscape and the critters on it represents an arena for the interaction of natural and social forces, a kind of drama and one that like all dramas is not fully under our control as biologists. Maybe we can’t change the world, but we can help the world think about the changes that are necessary.

At the risk of being the raincloud that spoils your parade I don’t think the traction of research lies in building better mousetraps to study wildlife, or in the manic accumulation of data. Where it does lie is in making that research more relevant to people, encouraging a more moral, ethical and legal response to wildlife.

You’d think that a well thought-out research plan that addressed a series of questions in a systematic way over a long-term with sufficient replicates in multiple locations and with abundant funding and many students would be the answer. However,  the same hurdles that stifle necessary change in the rest of our lives, also provide impediments to making research results relevant.

I’m going to suggest the “Holy Grail” is found in awareness, education and outreach outside of our cloistered circle.  For some this will require a recalibration, but I have no further magic to offer.

If you consider research has a role to change a culture, the way people see the world and their association with that world, then think about ways to undertake the task. One way is to work within the system, beginning to understand the levers that move it, becoming some of the levers. Some of you will rise in organizations to positions of power. All of you can exercise influence around you.  Do not forget where you started and what was important to you then, will still be important in your future roles.

Good science provides good policy. But what is also required is good interpretation, good translation coupled with good communication skills to successfully bridge science and policy. Conservation fails when we think all that is necessary is the provision of accurate research results. Many professionals, with much scar tissue and skin in the game, point out that conservation is a social endeavour, which involves values. Values are an amalgam of experiences, observations plus social and traditional knowledge.

Over 70 years ago, Aldo Leopold provided an answer. He wrote “The real substance of conservation lies not in the physical projects of government, but in the mental processes of citizens. All the acts of government, in short, are of slight importance to conservation except as they affect the acts and thoughts of citizens.” The years have not diminished that message and the clear advice within it that our work involves attitudinal change.

Good science is necessary but may not suffice when decision makers and the greater constituency have a low level of ecological knowledge. It may be that the path to higher knowledge levels begins by instilling curiosity, interest and respect for the natural world. Those qualities have always been important and perhaps now are more crucial than ever to create a solid footing upon which science can find some traction.

Without some traction in the minds of the skeptics and non-believers we will remain trapped in a spiral of research, devising better and better ways to measure fewer and fewer creatures and perhaps monitoring their last gasps on earth. Knowledge isn’t achieved until it is shared. Knowledge isn’t effective until it is understood.

Survey after survey demonstrates the value of environmental awareness and education in public support for conservation. Many biological careers represent the addition of another brick in the wall of ecological literacy, of creating a constituency of people who know, care and are willing to do something for the fish and wildlife resource. It requires each biologist, despite the fear and aversion to speaking to an audience, to steel themselves to do so and in the process, practice and improve their craft at creating better awareness.

I would point out that it’s not only critical habitats and their wild inhabitants that are saved by an engaged, concerned constituency—it may well be biologists themselves.

Biology has great potential for entertainment leading to awareness, understanding and support for critters. The great English geneticist J. B. S. Haldane has left us a valuable legacy on this issue. Haldane was the one asked what inferences one could draw, from a study of the world, as to the nature of the creator. Recognizing that there were some 300,000 officially described species of Coleoptera, Haldane answered the creator must have had “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Because Haldane believed that science had great potential for entertainment it led him to write a long series of essays for the general public. He was probably the first in a tradition to write accessible essays, on scientific subjects, for a general readership. You stand next in line to continue this tradition.

Creating awareness of ecosystem functions, processes and relevance to humans is the first step to attitudinal and behavioural shifts at individual and community levels. Then we may see, through the process of osmosis, some policy creation at political and corporate levels. Who knows, it may catch on and the circle could expand to move awareness to national and global levels.

I’ll leave you with a test question. What proportion of your work has entered (or will enter) the consciousness of at least some bureaucrats, the public, maybe even the political and corporate world to possibly influence their thinking to some degree?

Finally— research, does it make a difference for wildlife?—the answer lies with you.

I’d like to thank my friends and colleagues for their insights, experience and scar tissue on the topic of research.  I hope I’ve rendered your feelings fairly. I accept responsibility for any misinterpretation. For the rest of you, I hope following me through a number of research rabbit holes has proven useful to create a better sense of the context you need to work in to make a difference for wildlife.

Keynote address to the 2024 Alberta Chapter of The Wildlife Society conference, March, 2024

¹ Thanks to the following for their experience and insights: Stan Boutin, Mark Boyce, Ludwig Carbyn, Danah Duke, Elston Dzus, Lee Foote, Greg Hale, Glynnis Hood,  Anne Hubbs, Courtney Hughes, Andrew Hurly, Glen Hvenegaard, Jack Imhoff, Susan Lingle, Brian Joubert, Allan Locke, Dave Mayhood, Evelyn Merrill, Andrea Morehouse, John Post, Larry Roy, Kathreen Ruckstuhl, Richard Schneider, Kirby Smith, Colleen St Clair, Brad Stelfox, Michael Sullivan, Cliff Wallis, Bill Wishart, Hilary Young.


PO BOX 4990
Edmonton AB
T6E 5G8

Rooted in Wisdom: Deer Aging Techniques

Embark on a journey of precision and insight with the Lethbridge College Wildlife Analytics Lab (WAL) at the ACTWS Conference in Jasper! Join our workshop, ‘Rooted in Wisdom: Deer Aging Techniques‘, to explore the secrets hidden within wildlife teeth. Explore both the field technique of ‘tooth eruption and wear’ and the laboratory marvel of ‘cementum analysis’ – both dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of ungulate ages. Delve into the heart of these techniques, comparing their accuracy and precision, with a revelation of the superior accuracy of cementum analysis. Learn the art of tooth extraction and witness the seamless process of submitting your own wildlife teeth to the WAL for aging through cementum analysis. Elevate your understanding of deer populations and contribute to the advancement of wildlife knowledge and bolster your resume with applied experience. Participants will gain hands-on familiarity with the field technique of jaw aging, and the lab process of tooth extraction, inspection, preparation, and cementum analysis. Join us in Jasper for a transformative experience at the intersection of field expertise and cutting-edge laboratory analysis!

Facilitated by the Wildlife Analytics Lab, Lethbridge College

Cost: $15

Professional refers to someone who works with wildlife and/or their habitats in a professional setting.

In this context, it is not in reference to a legal professional designation.