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DFW heading down the road to squishy science


I was forwarded the most recent “podcast” from Chuck Bonham, the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Bonham does these podcasts as sort of an internal communication form with the DFW staff to talk about things he sees as important for the agency, where it is making progress. They are not meant for public consumption, but there are a number of DFW employees who find them so entertaining – and by entertaining I really mean “laughable” – they send them on to me.

This most recent podcast was very enlightening. I think. It was about – to the best of my deciphering of tortured political-speak and bureaucratic jargon – two things: A year-long effort to create a new “product” regarding wildlife incidents and complaints, and second, there was a side-discussion of “human dimensions of wildlife,” and how the DFW was going to integrate this new field of study into managing the state’s wildlife – or people – or how people feel about wildlife and wildlife science. Or something like that. Heck, I’m not sure what this new field of study really is about.

The podcast was a discussion between Bonham and Marc Kenyon, a wildlife biologist – excuse me, senior environmental scientist – with the DFW.

(The title change from wildlife biologist to senior environmental scientist netted Kenyon and all other “seniors” a 30 percent pay raise a couple of seasons ago, and now the DFW can’t figure out why it is cutting programs because they are running out of money. But that’s off topic….)

Kenyon is in charge of putting together this new “wildlife incident reporting system,” which has taken a year to prepare and won’t be fully operational until after a year of testing, which begins in May, and only if it gets approval in Sacramento. After a year of testing and ironing out the bugs, it will then “stand up,” which I assume means “start for real.”

As best I can tell, the wildlife incident reporting system is a database that allows selecting and sorting by categories. I know, you can do that with any database, but this one is special:

When an environmental scientist gets a call from a homeowner in, say, Palmdale, with a half-squashed squirrel trying to clay its way out of the street, they will know what other environmental scientists facing that difficult task have done. The new reporting system will have the environmental scientist interview the whole neighborhood and how they reacted to the squirrel incident and the DFW’s handling of the situation – and report how it played on the evening news – generating reams of paper, or gigabytes of electronic data. The multiple forms that must be filled out will keep keep the environmental scientist at his or her computer for days after investigating one road-killed squirrel. That will necessitate the hiring to more high-paid environmental scientists to investigate the growing number of wildlife incidents, and the incident reporting system will be jam-packed with searchable data so in the future the DFW can handle every incident without getting on the evening news. That, if I’m interpreting Bonham’s words correctly, is the goal of all this effort.

“It’s going to be great when we are all finished and ready to roll it out,” said Kenyon in the podcast.

I’m sorry if I sound dubious. Back when the DFW had field biologists who actually spoke with people and worked with wildlife, they would have just euthanized the squirrel and told everyone it was the most humane thing to do. The DFW would have relied on a trained field biologist’s expertise. No reports, no news media analysis, no concern about phone calls from animal rights groups.

But at this point in the podcast, the discussion veered to a discussion about “Human Dimensions of Wildlife,” as a new area of scientific study. This was new to me. So I went on line and spent a couple of hours reading about the new field. I even read five or six scientific paper aobstracts in this field, and it seems to me like a squishy version of market research and polling, but those are old terms people understand. “Human dimensions of wildlife” sounds sexy and no one has any idea what it means.

(The best that I can tell, it is the “human dimensions of wildlife” field that led us introduce the wrong wolf subspecies into Yellowstone because some humans wanted wolves back into that ecosystem at all costs, and that trumped putting the right type of wolf back into that ecosystem. But wolves are also off topic….)

Here are some honest-to-God titles of papers published in this field in the so-called scientific publication called “Human Dimensions of Wildlife, An International Journal”:

“Examining Human Perception of Elephants and Large Trees for Insights Into Conservation of an African Savanna Ecosystem”;

“Beach-User Attitudes to Shark Bite Mitigation Strategies on Coastal Beaches; Sydney, Australia”;

“A Hedonic Analysis of Big Game Hunting Club Dues in Georgia, USA”;

“Exploring the Influence of Charismatic Characteristics on Flagship Outcomes in Zoo Visitors.”

I’m not making this up. I’m sure these are all university- or government-funded studies that ask people how they feel about what should be scientific decisions based on real science. Science should not be based on market research. I read the abstracts on all of these papers, and besides the use of obtuse language (“Hedonic”? Really? “Flagship Outcomes”? What the heck is wrong with these people?), they are taking natural resource management and conservation away from real science-based decisions. This is the new squishy science that will give us things like, “if everyone thinks it’s OK for mountain lions to eat children on hiking trails, why should we do anything to prevent it.”

But that’s just me, an increasingly grumpy old man, saying that.

Bonham would tell you he is a forward-thinking intellectual who is shaping the direction of DFW for the next 50 years, and this “Human Dimensions of Wildlife” thing is the direction he has been taking the DFW, making it more enlightened and inclusive, assuring it takes forever to get anything done.

I think he’s part of the bureaucratic swamp that needs to be drained.


[Editor’s note: If you would like to watch the Bonham podcast for yourself, it is at this direct link: Matthews calls it 12 minutes of pure torture, so the entire transcript of the Podcast is below. It is slightly less painful to read.

Transcript of DFG director Chuck Bonham’s Podcast No. 45:

Chuck: Welcome to podcast number 45. I think this is our second podcast in a row that’s going to use the interview structure. We’ve got Marc Kenyon with us today and Marc’s in the department’s Wildlife Investigations Lab and we have a few questions for him about some of the cool work he’s recently been doing. How have long have you been at the department, Marc? Do you want to introduce yourself to everybody?

Marc: Yeah, I’m a senior environmental scientist. I’ve been working for the department for going on eight years now and it’s been a great time.

Chuck: What’s your background?

Marc: I’ve got a couple degrees, one in wildlife biology from UC Davis. Go Aggies. And, another one from Montana State.

Chuck: The “Go Aggies” remark is probably going to swamp my suggestion box from those who like Humboldt State, those who like Davis for the production of our new generation of scientists to the department. But I’ll skip over that.

Marc: Great.

Chuck: Hey, so one of things we have been focusing on recently is this concept or theme that when we take our experts in technology and more modern thinking around data management and we align it with our wildlife biologists, like yourself, we can produce products that help us do our jobs. Do you think that’s accurate, kind of sound premise, and if so, is there an example you are working on that might prove-up that premise?

Marc: I think that’s probably a great way and direction for the department to go in the future. It makes us more relevant and resilient. It is something we are working on currently. Through the efforts of the drought response, relative to human wildlife conflict, we started to understand some things and patterns about wildlife conflict. To really get a better handle on that, we reached out to the Data Technology Division, under Tom Lupo’s shop, and we’ve really begun on working on a new Wildlife Incident Reporting System. It’s going to be great when we are all finished and ready to roll it out.

Chuck: So what’s it going to do for you?

Marc: Well it’s going to take everything from the initial phone call from a reporting party on human wildlife conflict and help our staff to manage it all the way to the terminus of the incident. For example, it can generate an incident report, it can generate a depredation permit, and it can track the report and track the take of species. Which can benefit everything from a CEQA analysis to just generally understanding what’s happening on the landscape.

Chuck: Are you in your eight years, seeing an increase in these incidents between citizens in California and wildlife?

Marc: I think not only just within this state are we seeing this, but you know I’m connecting with managers in other states, and with the drought, with increasing human population, we are looking at what over 50 million people by 2050 in California, with that at the urban interface we are about to see a lot more human wildlife conflict incidents. And, our staff needs a better way to stay on top of these things.

Chuck: Yeah, my experience with watching and assisting where appropriate when these events happen. You don’t ever know when they may happen and there’s always a lot of energy and passion involved from different perspectives and our staff is doing delicate work, often underneath a news camera recording it for broadcast. Particularly down in Southern California, where you have communities overtime that have grown into habitat for large animals like bears or mountain lions. So it’s a difficult no-win proposition for us to be doing a really hard job underneath all that scrutiny and that tension that plays out.

Marc: Well I think part of that and part of the scrutiny received could be a lack of information or a lack of collected information that we can use to inform the public. As we know, working with the public, working with humans, can be sometimes the most difficult part of our job.

Chuck: On that note, let me segue to something else that I’m aware of. Isn’t there something called human dimensions work in wildlife science, wildlife biology, and if so, what is that?

Marc: There is and it’s a complete scientific discipline on what’s called the human dimensions of wildlife. The three dimensions of wildlife management being: understanding wildlife, understanding their habitat, but also understanding the humans because humans are effected by and have the most impact on wildlife and their habitats. So we are beginning to work on bringing in-house some social scientists, some working economists that can help us to better understand our stakeholders and our public, and bring them into the decision making processes.

Chuck: So this is not hocus-pocus? This is actually a professional career track in wildlife management, published literature, all that kind of stuff?

Marc: Absolutely, there are Ph.D. programs in multiple universities, there are journals, scientific journals that are dedicated to this science and it is. And it is. It’s a very rigorous science.

Chuck: Yeah, I actually first heard of this when I started about five years ago. Listening to our counterparts at the Arizona state wildlife agency share with the network of directors and wildlife managers in the West, their investment and human capacity and how it was tailoring their outreach and education, but also structuring their prioritization for hunters and anglers.

Marc: Absolutely. And being connected with the stakeholders, being connected with the public, helps to align us so we are all pulling in the same direction toward conservation.

Chuck: And on that note, I hope very soon we will be able to announce the hiring of our first full-time employee at the department charged with managing our human dimensions research, which kind of tracks this realization that’s bubbled up in the department around the need to commit to and build our scientific capacity and networks for our own employees. So we have a science institute, we are now doing an every-other-year science symposium. We’ve taken the time to write down our peer review protocols. We’re taking a lot more of our decision making out for independent peer review/feedback. I think we just did a podcast that included a note about our genetics laboratory being stood up for the first time. Bringing on board some fish geneticists, which has been a blind spot in our scientific portfolio for a while. So it’s cool to see over time we can start to slowly build what we need to have internally in order to be ready for the next generation of challenges. Do you like your job at the department?

Marc: I love my job at the department. I love the people as well. It’s a great place, you know I’ve worked for other agencies and for other places and this is my family now.

Chuck: What is left to do to really stand up the Wildlife Incident Reporting System?

Marc: Well, there’s a bit of training that’s coming out in the next month and then we will have a statewide rollout. However, that’s only the first phase. Because of time constraints, we wanted to show success and bring a product to the department to better understand how we can move it forward from there and so, there is a second phase that will be pending ERC approval and all that.

Chuck: What does ERC stand for, for those who are watching and reading?

Marc: Right correct, the Executive Review Committee. And if we can get through that process, we can then rollout more reporting and getting data out of the system to make it usable for our staff.

Chuck: And so let’s change that, if you can get through it, to when you get through it, what’s your hope that you will be able to go live, if you will, kind of across the department for this tool for everybody.

Marc: Well, the phase one we are going live May 1 and phase two would hopefully be approximately about a year of development after that.

Chuck: Yeah, it can seem that these things take forever. I know, I hear about it. Say as a bizarre example, “when can we get electronic timesheets?” Spoiler alert, announcement coming soon on that. Let me see if I can tie-off this product you’re working on, the reporting system, to two other themes underway in the department and get your feedback on those. The first is, perhaps our old approach to problem solving might have been ask certain parts of the department to think though to a solution. But it’s my view that we get a superior solution if we create a space and we invest different parts of the department to come together in a multi-disciplinary unit and figure it out. And then recommend back to the executive the superior tools. Does that make sense to you and have you seen that here as something working well?

Marc: I’ve seen it here with this incident reporting tool. That’s exactly what happened. We brought on law enforcement, we brought on wildlife management subject matter experts and sat them down with our Data Technology Division and we produced a great tool. But it’s also that collaboration that we see throughout all of science, you know, bringing multiple disciplines together and it’s been able to advance science and I think it’s great that we are advancing the department in a similar manner.

Chuck: The other theme, which is kind of similar in my mind, is how at a management level you navigate an entity like ours which is centralized. You’re here in the Sacramento region, I think. Headquarters has policy and law, budgets and wildlife branch. But we’re also kind of decentralized as well. We’re structured around regions. We place very appropriate and important emphasis on local knowledge and local presence. A lot of our wildlife staff is housed in regions. So if we are not doing it well, we can generate a product either side of that structure which the other side is not comfortable with or wasn’t involved in and we can get internal dispute. The way better approach is to say let’s find something that works at the regional level and at the policy headquarters level and let’s do it together. Does that make sense to you and is that also something that’s going to play out here where we’ll need the regions as those who are often at the front line getting the phone call about wildlife conflict?

Marc: It’s absolutely pivotal to the success of most projects like this Wildlife Incident Reporting System. And yes, we did bring in experts from across the branches and across the regions to provide their perspective and input, and they’re testing this product right now.

Chuck: Anything else, closing comments? This might be, who knows, I don’t think it will be my last podcast. You might be back before we get to 50 or 100 podcasts, but you never know when you get another chance to put in a plug for something or wrap it up with a closing comment.

Marc: Nothing other than just stay tuned for more. The conflict program is ever evolving. The human dimensions program is getting stood up and exciting times are on the horizon.

Chuck: Cool. Hey, thank you Marc. Thanks for tuning into this podcast and we’ll see you during the next one.

End Transcript

[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.]

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