Wildlife Policy, Science, and Marketing: Through the Eyes of the North American River Otter
Department of Biology and Natural Resources, Frostburg State University, Frostburg, Maryland 21532, USA
From 1976 to 2008, North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) reintroduction projects were initiated in 22 US states. As North American Coordinator of the IUCN’s Otter Specialist Group, the first author has responsibility for monitoring the status of river otters for the organization, including ecological and well as sociological outcomes. Based on a survey of every state wildlife agency in the continental United States, all of the reintroduction projects appear to have succeeded in restoring river otter populations, and the overall status of populations has improved substantially over the last 30 years. From this survey, scientific articles, popular articles, and wildlife agency publications, we review how “science” has been applied to monitor reintroduced and expanding populations and justify changes in management policy for the species (e.g., implanting harvests status) as populations recover. In some cases, “marketing” seems to have played a substantial role in promoting various aspects of river otter management—both in portraying the river otter as a valuable indicator and flagship for highlighting the health of aquatic ecosystems and in characterizing river otters as a growing nuisance in need of population control. Important to our discussion is a review of how science can be applied (sometimes inappropriately) to further specific management goals/agendas pertaining to the river otter. For example, recent evidence suggests that river otters are not likely limited to pristine waterways, and thus may not be suitable indicators of (or flagships for) the health of aquatic ecosystems. Portraying river otters as destroyers of game fish populations, therefore demanding control of this predator, would likewise seem a disingenuous argument for implementing trapping seasons. We argue that wildlife conservation is hindered and the public’s trust in conservation policies compromised when science and marketing are inappropriately integrated to achieve a particular management outcome. We use case examples from the early 1900s through present to illustrate paradigm shifts and review public relations programs pertaining to river otter reintroductions to emphasize the importance of using objective social science theory and methodologies to avoid the potentially dangerous propagation of public misconceptions when evaluating wildlife reintroduction projects and establishing management strategies.