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From conflict to collaboration: Student’s research helps guide Andean bears’ future

High in the mountains of Colombia, a species of bear known for its black coat and cream-colored “spectacles” around its eyes builds nests in trees and forages for food.

Known as Andean bears, these animals prefer to be alone. But, as agriculture and ranching expand and encroach on their mountaintop habitat, so does their interactions with humans. This may result in the loss of crops or cattle—and, sometimes, the loss of a bear, as ranchers attempt to solve the conflict. Their remote locations and a system of autonomous authorities further complicates efforts to soothe tensions, creating a patchwork of bear management across Colombia.

It’s an issue that can threaten the future of Andean bears, South America’s only species of bear. Now, research by graduate student Rhianna Hohbein is helping to identify ways these authorities can collaborate for positive results for both bears and ranchers.

“As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, most people in Colombia did not know the bears existed because they occur in these super high-elevation ecosystems. Since then, there has been a push for environmental education, where people are now sharing stories about the bear and trying to cultivate this sense of pride,” said Hohbein. While the bear is not endangered, these increasing conflicts with people show potential for issues in the future. “I was interested in this species once I heard about it, because it’s not very well-studied and I thought that in itself was interesting.”

Hohbein, who graduates this spring with a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, connected with a Warnell alumna living in Colombia to do her initial research. By interviewing more than 70 professionals and practitioners across the country—both government experts and representatives of nongovernmental organizations working with Andean bears—she was able to gain a better understanding of how Colombia’s system of autonomous regional authorities helps or hinders bear management.

In recent decades, Colombia’s government has decentralized much of the environmental decision-making to more local levels. As a result, regional authorities, called Corporaciones Autónomas Regionales, implement environmental policy.

Sometimes, these authorities, or CARs, collaborate well. But that’s not the case throughout most of the country. “So, one of my goals is to communicate back to the community the different strategies that have been implemented by the different CARs, so they’re able to see who’s implemented different forms of conflict management. They might then be inspired to contact biologists at these other CARs to understand how it’s working, or get advice on implementing a strategy,” she added.

Data sharing is a large element of this collaboration. Right now, data on Andean bears is difficult to come by. Even across Colombia, because of different research methodologies used by the CARs, data collected in one area might not be compatible with data from another.

This is also where Hohbein’s connectivity model comes in. As part of her research, Hohbein created a map of Andean bear connectivity, showing where Andean bears are most likely to be moving across the landscape, using very general information about their known habitat preferences. She then went a step further, validating this map using social media and website information.

“I was able to harvest all of this data about where Andean bears had been sighted to make sure these records were agreeing with what my model was showing,” she added. “My willingness to accept a coarser model allowed me to use these data whereas people who need higher precision cannot. It was very coarse—the most detailed location information I was able to get was usually the municipality. But conservation programs are often implemented by municipality, so I figured the level of municipality would work.”

Using hashtags and social mentions to map species data is still a relatively new research tool. But when these models were further validated by some information she had collected from professionals, Hohbein said she felt confident her maps could prove useful.

The general locations where people were seeing or interacting with Andean bears, which were often at the borders between jurisdictions, helped reinforce the need for connections between authorities.

Hohbein layered the connectivity model with information she collected on regional collaborations to get a sense of not only where human-bear conflicts are likely to happen, but also where regional authorities are working together to manage the bears and where new collaborations would be most helpful.

The result of her work, Hohbein said, was hopefully a better picture of cooperation and connectivity across the country. Better communication among everyone involved can lead to better management for the bears.

“One of my overarching goals was to be able to identify which agencies are best positioned to collaborate. Because when there’s no communication between neighboring authorities, you see problems,” she said. “But when one group has a nice, collaborative structure, they’re just ecstatic about it. They talk about all these benefits, from learning from one another’s mistakes to making conservation more efficient and using fewer economic resources to do studies. They’re also able to pool their data to have a better understanding of how the bears are doing across all their jurisdictions.”

With a growing awareness of Andean bears and a sense of national pride surrounding them, Hohbein said she hopes her work can contribute to the larger conversation. “Many organizations are in a sort of competition over the Andean bear. One of the biologists I interviewed called it the fight over ‘who gets to be the Andean bear hero.’”

While the bear represents competition, it can also become a model for collaboration. This can not only benefit environmental stewardship in Colombia, but also other countries with similar regional models.

“Even though this style of decentralized governance is implemented in more than 60 countries, most of its effects are only known for timber management and fisheries, and less so with wildlife conservation,” she said. “So, I thought that was an interesting component of my research, and I was able to speak to that in my results as well.”

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