Curtailing environmental harm through efforts in conservation criminology

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Meredith Gore (view larger image)

Interdisciplinary research is a cornerstone of innovation at Michigan State University (MSU). The opportunities for faculty members to partner with colleagues across the various MSU colleges are plentiful — and encouraged. Input from experts in many fields will be crucial to developing solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. With topics such as climate change dominating news headlines and the political sphere, MSU and other research institutions will be asked to provide leadership and answers. Meredith Gore, an associate professor in the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, is one of the researchers leading the charge.

In an effort to curtail environmental harm, Gore has been working in the area of conservation criminology, a joint effort between the university’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the School of Criminal Justice. Her educational background is in anthropology and natural resource policy, but human behavior has always been a significant interest.

“I have always wanted to know more about humans and how we interact with the environment,” Gore said. “Unfortunately, a lot of negative consequences to the environment come as a result of negligent and sometimes illegal behavior from humans. My work, both in Michigan and abroad, deals with conservation while using criminology theory and methods of analyzing data that help to build a better understanding of the human dimension.”

The MSU conservation criminology program was established in 2008 and is the only one of its kind in the world, Gore said. Graduate students can earn a certificate by taking three courses that integrate conservation, natural resources management, criminal justice, and risk and decision sciences. These fields also shape Gore’s research, including a project in Michigan that aims to improve management of furbearing animals.

Michigan has a long history of furbearer hunting and trapping, creating a substantial economic industry. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) indicates that the state is third in the nation in hunter participation, with nearly 800,000 licensed hunters and $28 million of economic impact. The DNR uses a comprehensive dataset to inform its management policies, taking into account the population size of animals and other biological factors. But there are still missing pieces to these management recommendations. Studying four furbearers in particular — American marten, bobcat, fisher and river otter — Gore wants to better inform the DNR’s models by accounting for noncompliance with rules.

“This project is aiming to produce new human dimension data to include in these models,” Gore said. “If stakeholders are not complying with rules, what does that look like? Where is it occurring? One of the really challenging things with furbearer management is that the state has to rewrite its management recommendations on an almost annual basis. It can be confusing to
resource users, and it’s time-consuming. If the model were more holistic, we could have more stable and sustainable policy.”

Involving communities in her research leads to the best results, Gore said, because there are cultural considerations that are important. Many families in Michigan have a history of hunting and trapping, which are often passed down through generations. Failing to capture information from those spending time outdoors would be remiss.

“Trappers and hunters can be the first line to where these animals are and whether they’re being managed sustainably,” Gore said. “They provide really valuable information, so they are a critical part of this project in data collection.”

Gore and her team use a survey method called the randomized response technique. This allows individuals to answer questions under the condition of confidentiality. The research team’s goal is not to fine or penalize hunters and trappers, Gore said, but to ensure that accurate data regarding resource use is collected. She also compiles risk maps for species based on population estimates, habitat, the extent of illegal exploitation and other factors. She hopes to learn the scale of illegal take and contribute evidence that can inform policy and create a sustainable future.

Funding for the project comes from the DNR and MSU AgBioResearch. Gore believes the collaborative effort between MSU and the State of Michigan will benefit all citizens, regardless of whether they hunt.

“Every person is affected by environmental harm,” Gore said. “We are either a cause of an environmental harm, or we can be negatively affected. This research tries to resolve those negative impacts. Unfortunately, environmental harms are increasing through climate change, illegal activity, etc. The bioeconomy is really important in Michigan, and we have amazing natural resources. If we’re not measuring threats to the bioeconomy accurately, then we’re not going to reduce risks.”

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