I was fortunate to attend the Society for Conservation Biology’s (SCB’s) 24th International Congress for Conservation Biology in Edmonton, Alberta this past June. SCB has become very international in its focus, with its annual meeting now being held in North America only once every few years. Because the meeting was in Canada this year, there were an unusual number of presentations on North American wildlife.

However, as is typically the case, I spoke with many American and Canadian students whose ultimate goal was to study wildlife in exotic locations overseas. It seems that giant pandas, rhinos, elephants, and lemurs hold more fascination for these students than the wildlife on their own continent.

As someone who has worked in other countries, including Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Australia, Indonesia, and Argentina, I understand the powerful allure of the exotic. More recently, however, my perspective has been changing. I’ve been pondering why it’s important for North American wildlife and conservation biology students to seriously consider working on projects closer to home. This essay is an attempt to capture some of those thoughts.

North America Has Its Own Serious Conservation Challenges 
One attraction of working in developing countries is the possibility of making a real difference for the conservation of threatened wildlife. Many species are in trouble worldwide and they need the help of wildlife experts in order to survive. People in our field want to make a difference. Furthermore, the conservation problems in developing countries are often portrayed as much more critical than those in North America.

We do have the advantage of having a functioning regulatory infrastructure, which is not always the case overseas, especially in developing countries. However, in many ways, North American wildlife--though it has seen many conservation successes over the past decades--may be in increasing jeopardy. This is due primarily to a growing human population, coupled with increasingly intensive development and all of its associated problems. These include habitat fragmentation and alteration, introduction of invasive species, and pollution.

For example, a growing horde of feral cats, combined with other factors, is decimating migratory bird populations, while introduced Burmese pythons and nutria threaten our southeastern wildlife and wetlands. Our continent’s seemingly insatiable thirst for energy is also having a major impact. American society is still highly dependent on fossil fuels. A growing number of traditional oil and natural gas wells, as well as oil sand and oil shale mines, are all going to take a significant toll on wildlife. The recent Gulf oil spill is a case in point.

Even non-traditional, so-called “green” energy sources have the potential to harm wildlife if not managed properly. Biofuels production, for example, is taking many farm acres out of the Conservation Reserve Program; solar panels could cover thousands of acres of desert habitat; and wind towers and their associated infrastructures, including roads and transmission lines, can disturb sensitive wildlife or even kill birds and bats struck by the revolving blades. Add to this the current and potential impact of climate change, and wildlife professionals in the United States, Canada, and Mexico will be facing some serious challenges in the coming decades. The point is that many species of North American wildlife and their habitats need help and this number is likely to increase exponentially in the coming decades.

The Importance of Role Models
 North American wildlife conservationists will have a very difficult job selling conservation overseas, particularly if their own countries are not strong role models. Developing countries often ask, “Why should we forego industrial and economic development, and the associated higher standards of living, to save wildlife?” This is a difficult question to answer, and that’s precisely the point. If we are going to export our North American conservation ethic and practices overseas, especially to developing countries, we had better make them work in own backyards. This is a strong argument for American, Canadian, and Mexican wildlife students to apply their expertise to North American problems. We can’t be effective global conservationists if we fail as effective stewards at home.

Growing Global Expertise
Thirty years ago, there was a crying need for North American professors and graduate students to conduct research and conservation programs around the world, particularly in developing countries. However, the situation is changing. Countries such as Brazil, China, India, Kenya, South Africa, and many others have improved their economic conditions and are developing a large cadre of highly qualified wildlife scientists and graduate students, many of whom want to work in their own countries or geographic regions. Their countries want this as well, and who can blame them? North American students typically visit these countries to conduct their research, and then leave, taking their knowledge and expertise with them. Local students are more likely to stay in their own countries and, hopefully, become leaders and key decision makers in their fields. This is not to say that North American students who have exemplary research ideas or conservation projects overseas should not pursue them; only that it is going to be far more competitive in our increasingly globalized world.

North American Wildlife is Intriguing
Some North American wildlife are so familiar to us that, superficially, they may appear bland and uninteresting. The same thing occurs in other countries. I’ve seen Danish zoogoers fascinated by raccoons in the Copenhagen Zoo, but who pays attention to these ubiquitous creatures in North America, where they are often considered pests? The Guangzhou Zoo in China even exhibits dog breeds, such as bulldogs and German shepherds. This is not as strange as it may seem; canine pets are still rare in China, thus making these exhibits a popular attraction. 

P.T. Barnum certainly had us pegged. He knew that it is the novel and exotic that attracts and holds people’s attention. That being said, North American wildlife is intriguing in its own right, and when looked at more closely, can be very “exotic.” For example, I was fortunate to have studied Rocky Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) for my doctoral research. This unusual goat-antelope’s closest relatives are found in Eurasia and include the goral, serow, and takin, and their behavior and ecology are fascinating. For example, these denizens of alpine and subalpine habitats are incredible climbers that use rocky escape terrain to elude their predators. Both sexes possess dangerous, sharp-tipped horns and interactions between adults are typically antagonistic. Some of my other personal favorites are the black-footed ferret, sea otter, woodland caribou, fisher, tiger salamander, Loggerhead sea turtle, American burying beetle, and Karner blue butterfly—all fascinating in their own right. In Mexico, one of the most unusual creatures is the secretive water opossum or Yapok (Chironectes minimus), a marsupial that lives in freshwater streams and lakes in Mexico. Little is known about its basic biology and ecology. The point is that there numerous species of interest throughout North America.

Implications for The Wildlife Society
Some members have asked: “When is TWS going to internationalize its operations?” We took a meaningful step in that direction when we added a Canadian Section in 2008. TWS would also love to welcome a Mexican Section to include our Mexican colleagues and become a truly North American organization. Given the fact that wildlife pays no attention to arbitrary international borders, there is a tremendous need for intra-continental, tri-national networking and collaboration.

The bigger question is: Should TWS expand its core operations beyond North America? I’ve thought about this issue long and hard, and I believe that the Society can provide the greatest service to our members and the profession by focusing its resources primarily in North America. It would not make fiscal or logistical sense to expand chapters into Europe, Asia, or South America. However, it does make perfect sense to engage with other nations. TWS and its members should strengthen the mutually beneficial exchange of information and technology with our colleagues and sister organizations in other parts of the world. We clearly have much to learn from each other. In fact, we plan to expand that exchange through our publications and our website, and through a revitalized International Wildlife Congress.

Ultimately, however, I believe that TWS can gain by playing to its strengths and retaining its focus on North American wildlife and wildlife professionals in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. In doing so, we trust that many of our international colleagues will choose to join TWS, primarily for the information we can provide though our publications, website, International Wildlife Congress, and network of experts in wildlife management and conservation. One of the best ways we can make a global contribution is by ensuring success in our own backyard.

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