Universities sound alarm on impact of misinformation in conservation efforts

Fake news and conservation

Misinformation isn’t uncommon in today’s society but it is not often discussed in the world of conservation — something researchers from six universities are sounding the alarm on.

A recent study published by a team from the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science at UBC Okanagan including Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology Dr. Adam Ford and Liber Ero Fellowship’s Dr. Clayton Lamb, explains how some scientists, advocacy groups and the general public are destroying efforts to conserve biodiversity through their actions.

“Outcomes, not intentions, should be the basis for how we view success in conservation,” says Dr. Ford.

“Misinformation related to vaccines, climate change, and links between smoking and cancer has made it harder for science to create better policies for people,” he says.

“Weaponizing information to attack other groups impedes our ability to solve problems that affect almost everyone. We wanted to know if these issues were also a problem for people working to conserve biodiversity. Conservation is not perfect and things can go wrong. Sometimes people mean well, and harm ensues by accident. Sometimes people’s actions are much more sinister.”

The study called FACETS reveals examples of how good intentions ended badly across the world. This includes the case of the Huemul deer in Patagonia National Park, Chile.

“We reviewed one case where the primary objective of a newly-established park was to protect the endangered Huemul deer. The goal was to make the landscape a little better for these deer in hopes of increasing the population,” explains Dr. Lamb. “In doing so, they removed the domestic livestock from the park, and as a result, the natural predators in the system lost their usual food source and ate many of the deer, causing the population to decline further. It’s a textbook case of misplaced conservation.”

Other cases include mass petitions to stop shark finning in Florida despite the practice being previously banned, planting a type of milkweed to save monarch butterflies but only causing harm to them instead and closer to home — sharing misinformation related to the British Columbia grizzly bear hunt.

“When we see province-wide policies like banning grizzly hunting, those go against the wishes of some local communities in some parts of the province and choosing to steamroll their perspectives is damaging relationships and alienating the partners we need on board to protect biodiversity,” says Dr. Ford.

So how can we fix some of these issues? Dr. Ford suggests using a ‘big tent’ approach.

“We need to work together on the 90 per cent of goals that we share in common, as opposed to focusing on the 10 per cent of issues where we disagree. There are many clear wins for people and wildlife waiting to be actioned right now, we need to work together to make those happen,” he says.

In doing this, we can improve cooperation among parties and increase evidence-based approaches when it comes to conservation. This will ultimately stop the spread of misinformation and polarization.

“Although we’re seeing some misplaced efforts, we’re also seeing genuine care and good community energy in many of these cases. We just need to find a way to harness this energy in the right direction.”

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