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We Need (and Can Have) Improved Decision Making

For grizzly bears and their ecosystems to flourish and for the broader public trust to be served, the current process by which management decisions are made must be reformed. Yes, there are many ways to improve decision-making by management agencies, but they all involve dealing with the root issue of power. As long as the playing field is tilted, as now, towards a powerful privileged few, little will change.


Here are some steps that merit consideration.

Let the Sun Shine In


Transparency is a key to a functioning democracy. All data, correspondence and records used to make decisions should be made public, as they were collected at taxpayer expense.  Agency documents must also be clear and up front about underlying assumptions.

Freedom-of-Information laws are on the federal and state books, but the agencies governed by these laws need to abide by the spirit of them rather than, as is currently the case, seeing information requests by the public as something to be dodged and forestalled.   


All meetings should be open to the public, rather than separating sessions into those for public consumption and “executive” sessions where key decisions are increasingly being made.


Open the Doors


In keeping with the spirit of democracy, the decision process must be open to those with values other than domination and control. State wildlife management agencies are almost wholly subservient to the ethos of destruction and killing. Yet, more and more people across the country—in fact, the vast majority-- support saving rather than killing wildlife.  


Nongovernmental organizations have a lot of skin in the game of grizzly bear recovery, including financing community efforts to reduce conflict. So do independent scientists. They should be given a voice in the official decision-making process, as opposed to virtually none at all, which it currently the case. It is common for teams dealing with the recovery of other endangered species to include such voices: but the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has gone in the opposite direction, by expanding its membership, but only to include those who support its agenda.


Improve Scientific Practice


Democracy depends on good information, which in turn, relies on a healthy scientific debate. Grizzly bear research teams have too long lived in their own echo chambers of likeminded scientists. Research agendas are distorted because agency scientists serve the interests of other agencies which they increasingly see as their “customers.” The problem is that these client agencies are often focused on serving their own special interests centered on maintaining control and increasing funding, which often means serving, in turn, the special interests of those who control the purse strings. 


The process of scientific inquiry should be broadened to include those with expertise in the social and policy sciences—not just the biological sciences.  Funding should be made available to as wide a diversity of experts as possible from outside the involved bureaucracies, and the analyses and data of these non-aligned experts should be used to make better informed decisions.    University programs that train students who end up in management agencies should also emphasize interdisciplinary approaches, so that graduates have broad holistic view and related set of conceptual tools as they step into a complex, political world.


Improve Media Coverage


As the public can only make informed choices if they have good information, thorough high-quality reporting is essential.   That involves reporting not just on the science or by emphasizing quotes and other information from powerful bureaucrats who threaten to cut off access if a journalist doesn’t toe the line. Reporters need to be rewarded for taking the time to dig deeply into a story, and for making intelligent discerning choices about the information that an involved public needs to make decisions.


Journalists, like scientists should be encouraged to reflect on their own values, which every human being brings to their work. Young journalists should be also recruited, mentorships with experienced reporters encouraged, and more prizes given for quality journalism.


Learn from Experience


As I discuss elsewhere, while there are many examples of successful efforts to coexist with bears, there is little systematic analysis of what has worked, where and why. There is strong evidence that successes are tied to rearranging access to decision-making so that more people feel empowered. More people tend to support a change in practice when they feel they have a seat at the table, and can share and learn from what others have done. 


With so much money spent on management, it is tragic that as a society we are not collectively learning and improving our practice. A serious interdisciplinary effort should be mounted to review past experiences and build new projects at multiple scales which can then be tried and tested.


Understand "The Problem”


It is human nature to barge ahead toward a solution without having a comprehensive grip on the problem. As the saw goes, we are all holding a different part of the elephant and mistaking it for the whole. All conservation problems are multifaceted, with historical, political, scientific, social, and economic dimensions. Improving authoritative decision-making process depends upon people having as complete a picture of the overall context as possible.


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