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Briana Abrahms interviewed in UW News on climate change increasing human-wildlife conflict

Thursday, July 29, 2021 - 16:00

Briana Abrahms, UW Biology Assistant Professor and Boersma Endowed Chair in Natural History and Conservation, was interviewed by UW News on an article she wrote for Science in which she calls for greater research into how climate change will increase conflicts between humans and wildlife.

With wildfires spreading across the parched Western U.S., severe floods in Europe and in the coming decade a potential surge in coastal flooding, 2021 could be a pivotal year in how governments, societies and families view the threat of climate change.

Briana Abrahms, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington and its Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, is urging her fellow scientists to make their own pivot when it comes to climate change and another growing trend: conflicts between humans and wildlife. Human-wildlife conflicts can occur when people and wildlife move into the same area, or compete for the same resources, such as food.

As a handful of studies have shown, climate change is further exacerbating human-wildlife conflicts by straining ecosystems and altering behaviors, both of which can deepen the contacts — and potential competition — between people and animals. In an article published July 30 in the journal Science, Abrahms calls for expanding research into the many ways that climate change will impact the complex interplay between human activities and wildlife populations.

In a recent conversation with UW News, Abrahms explained how incorporating climate change into studies of human-wildlife interactions won’t just help scientists come up with ways to mitigate the effects of these conflicts. They could also alert policymakers, experts and ordinary citizens to potential sources of human-wildlife conflict before they even occur.

What led you to write this call to action?

I’ve been looking at this topic for some time. But I was really prompted when I had two clear examples from completely different ecosystems in front of me where extreme climate events led to a catastrophic conflict. That made me wonder how prevalent this is globally.

What were these examples?

In 2015 and 2016, there was a dramatic rise in the number of whales entangled in fishing gear off the west coast of the United States. There was a really unprecedented marine heat wave off of the coast of North America that had two effects. First, whales moved farther inshore to chase where their prey had moved during the heat wave. Second, it changed the timing of the Dungeness crab fishing season. This conjunction of the change in how whales use their available space in the ocean and the timing of this fishery created this perfect storm of overlap and led directly to a rise of whale entanglements.

The second example came from a report by the government of Botswana, which is where I’ve done a lot of my fieldwork. It cited the some of the highest numbers of human-wildlife conflicts on record — primarily large carnivores preying on livestock — during an extreme drought in 2018.

Why is it important to consider how climate change is driving human-wildlife conflicts?

Human-wildlife conflicts have been widely studied. Research shows that they have huge implications for biodiversity, human health, economics, quality of life and much, much more. But a more concerted effort by scientists to consider the influence of climate change on these conflicts could help us anticipate when these conflicts occur — maybe even avoid them.

Read the full Q&A with Briana in UW News.

Bonus: See related story in The Independent.

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