It was a simple gesture. In 2006, a single donor to the Animal Welfare Institute offered a $10,000 grant to support the development of new tools and strategies to prevent, reduce, or mitigate human-wildlife conflicts in North America. This offer became the cornerstone of the Christine Stevens Wildlife Awards, a grant program established that same year and named after AWI’s founder and longtime president, who was an ardent champion of humane, nonlethal solutions to human-wildlife conflicts.
The program has since become an annual event, with individual grants now increased to $15,000. It continues to support studies that address human-wildlife conflicts, as well as efforts to identify more humane, less intrusive methods of wildlife research.
Over time, as human numbers increased and our geographic footprint expanded, conflicts with wildlife became inevitable. All too often, real or perceived threats to human safety or property have resulted in animals being eliminated—singly or en masse—with ruthless efficiency. Even when humans don’t engage in such lethal control, animals are often harmed by our ever-expanding incursions into their territory, as when birds fly into skyscraper windows or seismic testing in the ocean has debilitating effects on marine mammals.
Conflicts continue today with a host of animals—wolves, coyotes, deer, bears, beavers, raccoons, birds, bats, and mice, to name a few. Such conflicts have spawned a multibillion-dollar industry involving federal and state agencies and private pest management companies that continue to resolve conflicts through lethal means. While there are few reliable statistics on the number of wild animals killed by private companies or state agencies, we do have some indication of the federal toll: In 2022, the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program reportedly killed more than 1.85 million animals.
Humans throughout history have also been intensely curious about wild animals. We want to know what makes a particular species unique and to understand its behaviors, physical characteristics, and relationship to other organisms. Often, however, individual animals have been sacrificed in pursuit of this knowledge. But even ostensibly nonlethal methods of obtaining data can be harmful. For example, while the advent and ongoing improvement in the design and functionality of radio collars revolutionized wildlife research, capture and handling remains inherently risky (to both people and wildlife). The use of traps or other methods (e.g., net-gunning from the air, tranquilizers) may cause extreme distress and injury to the captured individual, compromising their welfare and sometimes resulting, however unintentionally, in their death.
Can human-wildlife conflicts be resolved or prevented without harming the wildlife? Can wildlife be studied without unduly disturbing the animals? The goal of the Christine Stevens Wildlife Award program is to help scientists demonstrate affirmative answers to those questions.
Since 2006, over 560 scientists from academia, nongovernmental organizations, government agencies (federal, state, and tribal), and others (e.g., private citizens, museums) have applied for an award, with 91 recipients selected through 2022. The award is limited to studies conducted in North America, and most of the funded research has taken place in the United States (82), followed by Canada (6), and Mexico (3). Of US studies funded, research has been conducted in 30 states.
Every proposal must meet specific criteria to qualify for an award, including that any proposed study methods must, at worst, be only minimally invasive and that any domestic or captive wild animals used in the research (e.g., scent detection dogs, livestock guard dogs) must be humanely sourced and treated. Each application is subject to an initial review by AWI staff. The strongest proposals are also reviewed by experts independent of AWI.
Of the award recipients, 58 percent have been from academia, 37 percent from nongovernmental organizations, and 5 percent from government and other entities. Nearly 60 percent of awardees have been women. In total, over a million dollars has been invested in these innovative and important research initiatives. Many projects have been featured in the AWI Quarterly, and several awardees have had their studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
A sampling of the proposals funded over the history of the award program demonstrates the great diversity in species studied and the novel efforts to develop new and humane methods to remedy wildlife conflicts and study wildlife.
Protecting property while allowing wildlife to be wild
A number of studies have focused on nonlethal ways to keep predators away from livestock. Funding was provided in the program’s first year to Dr. John Shivik and Nathan Lance of Utah State University to assess the use of turbo-fladry (a fencing system that incorporates streamers or flags and an electric current) to ward off gray wolves. Another study led by Camilla Fox assessed the efficacy of the livestock and wildlife protection program of Marin County, California. The study helped provide the impetus for Fox to launch the nonprofit Project Coyote the following year to promote peaceful coexistence with coyotes and other wildlife.
Dr. David Ausband of the University of Montana received funding in 2011 to examine whether wolf urine and scat could be used to create a “biofence”—a scent line to mimic the presence of an unrelated pack and thereby dissuade resident wolves from crossing the line. Ausband expressed his appreciation for the grant: “Some funders shy away from new ideas and techniques, but your program recognized the potential impact and took a risk by funding the work.”
Suzanne Stone (formerly of Defenders of Wildlife, now head of the International Wildlife Coexistence Network) expressed a similar sentiment after we funded her effort to evaluate the use of “foxlights” to reduce predation by gray wolves on livestock in 2014. Foxlights—which, as their name suggests, were originally designed for use with foxes—are lights that produce random flashes to fool predators into thinking humans are on guard, thereby potentially deterring predator-livestock conflicts. Stone stated, “Our research was the first conducted on this deterrent in North America and now this tool is being used across the world. AWI’s support was essential to advancing nonlethal deterrent research at the time when few believed these methods would work. Not only do they work, if applied properly, they are among the best methods for protecting livestock and predators available today.”
One of the awards in 2012 went to Beaver Solutions, Inc., a company that works to develop and implement effective ways to control flooding and other adverse effects while allowing beavers to continue engaging in natural behaviors and contributing valuable ecosystem services. Company founder Mike Callahan (who also founded the nonprofit Beaver Institute), says that AWI’s assistance has enabled them to launch programs that have saved “thousands of beavers and countless numbers of other animals that depend on beaver ponds.”
AWI has long supported efforts to use immunocontraceptives to enable wild horse herds to remain on the range rather than be subjected to more draconian methods of population control—typically brutal roundups leading to a lifetime of captivity for most (and fatal injuries for some). So we were happy to provide funding in 2016 and 2021 for Dr. Karen Herman of the Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary to develop new, less stressful methods to survey horses and to evaluate refined Porcine Zona Pellucida fertility control vaccines for wild horses in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. Herman reported that the funding has been “critical for moving forward all our work for wild horses staying healthy on their home range and sustaining other wildlife and range health as well.”
Understanding our own impacts
The negative impacts on wildlife from human activities are sometimes unforeseen initially. Understanding those impacts is the first step toward mitigating them. A study funded in 2006 involved an investigation by Dr. Maureen Murray of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine of the effects of anticoagulant rodenticides on birds of prey, including red-tailed hawks, barred owls, eastern screech-owls, and great horned owls who had been admitted to the Tufts Wildlife Clinic. Similarly, Dr. Laurel Serieys Klein from UCLA received funding in 2012 to assess anticoagulant exposure in bobcats. Dr. Serieys called the award a “game changer” for her and for bobcats, as the research results provided support for two successful lawsuits against the State of California and informed legislation to reduce mortality and suffering of predator species across California.
AWI also awarded a grant in 2016 to Working Dogs for Conservation to demonstrate the use of scent-detection dogs to locate kit fox scats in the wild that could then be analyzed for evidence that the foxes had ingested prey poisoned by rodenticides. This was not the first study we funded that employed the keen noses of these dogs: An earlier study had the dogs enthusiastically hitting the field to ferret out river otter and mink scats along waterways in Montana and surrounding states. The scats were then tested for evidence of heavy metals (e.g., mercury, lead, and arsenic), pharmaceuticals, and flame retardants.
Sometimes the dangers we pose to wildlife are physical, not chemical: In 2019, we funded a study by Dr. Timothy Boycott of William & Mary College assessing the use of acoustic signals to reduce bird collisions with human-made structures. Dr. K. David Hyrenbach of Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge received funding this year to assess how light pollution interferes with the flight behaviors of wedge-tailed shearwaters in O‘ahu, Hawai‘i, and to evaluate mitigation strategies.
Wildlife research that doesn’t impede wildlife
Too often, our insatiable desire to know about animals has come at individual animals’ expense—killing them to dissect their inner workings or, even when we intend no lasting harm, capturing them to collect biological samples and attach tracking devices. AWI-funded studies to address these harms have focused on how to obtain valuable information (often to benefit species conservation) without subjecting individual animals to undue stress and risk of injury or death.
Dr. Randall Davis at Texas A&M University at Galveston received funding in 2007 to show how sea otters could be identified by analyzing photographs of the scars on their noses. Dr. Mark Pokras of Tufts University used digital images in 2011 to identify individual loons in Maine. Jason Holmberg of Wild Me used a computer algorithm in 2017 to analyze photographs of hawksbill sea turtles in Hawai‘i to identify individuals from the unique patterns on their shells. With this initial funding, the sea turtle identification project has evolved into the Internet of Turtles, an online, multi-species sea turtle monitoring platform (iot.wildbook.org) where, currently, nearly 14,000 sea turtles are being tracked.
In 2013, Dr. David Bird and James Junda of McGill University used drones to survey raptor nests in Canada. Bird says the success of their study “stimulated countless others all over the world to adopt the use of drones for nest censuses of not just birds of prey but many other species like seabirds.” Dr. Christine Proctor from Harrisburg University used drones in 2018 to survey eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania.
At least two awards allowed scientists to take “tracking” to a new level: In 2018, Stacy Cotey of Michigan Technological University used DNA collected from river otter tracks in the snow to identify individual otters. Cotey commented, “Due to the increasing environmental stresses on wildlife, it is important to … develop noninvasive techniques to reduce or even eliminate the stress from research.” That same year, Dr. Andrew Von Duyke of the Alaska Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough, collected DNA from polar bear tracks to gain critical information on the population. He noted that the award “had a disproportionately big impact on this project (and) has been a significant part of its success.”
While you can’t follow footfalls of oceangoing mammals, you can collect their breath: Dr. Janet Mann of Georgetown University used a 2014 award to be the first to obtain DNA from wild dolphin blows using a minimally invasive technique, securing a tremendous amount of information about the dolphins’ lung microbiome, resulting in three scientific papers and stimulating a new area of research.
These are just a few of the studies made possible by the Christine Stevens Wildlife Awards. All in all, the diversity of the research being undertaken by scientists globally to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts and develop humane methods for studying wildlife is astonishing. AWI is pleased to support this important research in North America while continuing to honor the legacy of Christine Stevens and her fervent desire to find “win-win” solutions, embrace coexistence, and prevent animal suffering.