lancebookInterview by Chris Gertschen

Lance Craighead is the Executive Director of the Craighead Institute, an applied science and research organization that builds conservation solutions for people and wildlife in changing landscapes. Its mission is to maintain healthy populations of native plants, wildlife, and people as part of sustainable, functioning ecosystems.

Since its founding by renowned grizzly bear researcher Dr. Frank C. Craighead in 1964, the Craighead Institute has pioneered the fields of conservation and wildlife research. Over the past four decades the Institute has conducted ecological research on grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park, genetic research on grizzly bears in Alaska, conventional and satellite radio-telemetry of wildlife, and the use of remote sensing to map vegetation and wildlife habitat.

For the past 15 years, the Craighead Institute has also been active in guiding conservation policy and management and in supporting grassroots conservation campaigns with scientific foundations. This occurs by developing local site-specific conservation plans in partnership with local stakeholders. These plans are designed to function within the larger ecosystems to maintain habitat and connectivity throughout multiple ecosystems and wildlife meta-populations.

The Institute has also focused on developing wildlife habitat suitability models, habitat connectivity models, and conservation area designs using GIS and has been involved in several large-scale conservation area designs for regions in the United States, Canada, Tibet, and Bhutan.

Chris Gertschen:  I would imagine that your family strongly influenced your interest in wildlife.  Can you remember when you first knew that you wanted to work to conserve the natural world?

Lance Craighead:  I think it happened somewhere on my way back from the Peace Corps. I had spent 2 years in Fiji and a year in Western Samoa and decided to spend a year travelling home around the world. Going through SE Asia really impressed on me how much people have changed the planet, and how many people there are. After India and Nepal I began to realize that there wasn’t much left of the natural world. A brief look at Pakistan and Afghanistan confirmed that impression and when I saw Iran – the fertile crescent – reduced to its present condition I began wondering what I could do to prevent a sea of humanity from inundating the wild places I had grown up in.

When I finally got back to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I decided I needed some more education to figure that question out so I went back to school.

CG:  Did your studies of conservation biology take place there?

LC:  No, I began studies that could be considered conservation biology in Alaska, and have mainly worked in Alaska, British Columbia, Montana, and Wyoming.

CG:  You’ve recently been awarded a grant from Yellowstone to Yukon’s partnership program to “maintain and enhance core habitats and wildlife connectivity for large carnivores and other species between Yellowstone National Park and the Salmon-Selway complex along the high divide.”  Would you tell us more about what you hope to achieve?

y2y_pageLC:  We are hoping to conduct a three-year study, or conservation plan, of the High Divide region. Securing funding has been very difficult, and we are grateful to the Y2Y partnership program for their help. This funding will be used to help improve our priority science with detailed knowledge and information on key wildlife habitats, corridors and linkage areas in Madison, Gallatin, Beaverhead, Fremont, Clark, and Lemhi counties at a fine scale (30 m2 and finer). As we prioritize areas for conservation we will assist these counties in updating land use policies, subdivision regulations, development codes, and help to guide land trust priorities. We help local governments, landowners, and other stakeholders determine what types of planning practices and what range of criteria are acceptable to them to achieve their goals without degrading the habitat beyond a point where it ceases to function for wildlife.  Specifically, to maintain wildlife connectivity at the local scale a structured framework and computer-based tools will be used to translate the language of conservation and wildlife science into clearly defined criteria appropriate for land use planning. This framework provides a step-by-step process for setting conservation objectives, identifying indicators for meeting those objectives, identifying habitat requirements for the chosen indicators, and producing appropriate development criteria designed to meet indicator requirements. Ultimately, land use planners need to know whether development at a given location will produce unacceptable impacts on area wildlife and to apply available planning practices to eliminate or mitigate such impacts. This knowledge is most effective at the beginning of the development process.

CG:  This sounds like a huge undertaking, one that will require regional and community support.  How will you go about gaining and sustaining that support?

LC:  We have been working in Madison County for almost 15 years now and have developed good working relations with a broad group of stakeholders. We’ve been involved primarily with conservation groups and agency personnel in Fremont County so far but we’re expanding our network of conservationists. It is a slow process that requires working closely with other people and gaining their trust. The biggest hurdle however is finding financial support to keep the process going. In the past we’ve managed to get enough funding from foundations to at least maintain some presence in the Madison and continue to refine computer models, but that support is continuing to dry up. We’re making efforts to broaden our support through a donor base, but that too is difficult and slow to develop. We are however getting more small contracts from county government, state and federal agencies. In short, things are not looking good. So far this year we’ve been turned down by 2 of the larger possible funders and one of our somewhat regular foundation supporters, and only have one modest proposal still outstanding. It may be a matter of years before expanding our Madison approach to other counties. One of the problems, I believe, is that regional foundations have been pouring money into NGOs in Montana and Idaho for years; many of those NGOs have been claiming to work in Madison County although they have done little actual conservation there with the exception of attending an occasional meeting. Some of the funders feel that their support has been unproductive and are looking to other areas where funding may be more effective. The short answer to your question is that we will continue to work in the region at whatever level can be supported; and progress may be slow.

CG:  I would imagine that a good part of your work is going to be gathering, interpreting, and mapping GIS data for the region.  Will you be working with and training volunteers and citizen scientists?

LC: Most of the GIS work requires data that are currently available. We have been training volunteers and citizen scientists for some of our other projects; most notably for recording the locations of pika colonies, but that approach does not lend itself too well to identifying key habitat on a broad scale. We have incorporated citizen observations of focal species like grizzly bear, wolverine, and pronghorn into our considerations of which areas are important for connectivity. In the future, to validate that areas are used for connectivity by wildlife, we hope to get observations and photographs from citizen scientists to document where animals are going. Such data will also be useful for documenting  road killed animals that may be missed in surveys or not recorded by highway maintenance operations. There are now a lot of smartphone apps that allow people to use GPS technology to geotag a location or a photograph and email it to a data repository (or facebook) so that documenting an observation is much easier. Also, most recreationists have a GPS device along with them now. The challenge is letting people know that you are interested in having them collect such data. We have been partnering with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation ( ) to get data on pikas, and on rarely seen species, and that approach may work for other types of data in the future such as deploying and retrieving instruments.

CG:  I really like the idea that adventurers and scientists are working together to serve conservation.  Breaking down some of the barriers between science, conservation, and education makes good sense.  I wonder if there aren’t community and regional partnerships that might increase conservation’s reach.  Do you think there is a place for education in conservation where we might bring new partners to the table?

LC: I think we’re beginning to see an increase in conservation partnerships. One of the newer agency-driven efforts is the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives that provide funding for broad conservation efforts and are open to the academic and NGO communities as well. Other partnerships are re-inventing themselves to be more effective. The Western Wildways Network is a case in point: it was previously The Spine of the Continent Initiative which has its roots back in The Wildlands Project. The Crown of the Continent Initiative seems to have formed to try to create a more locally-focused organization than the Yellowstone to Yukon, which the Crown was a part of previously. Much of this is in response to growing organized opposition to conservation, endangered species, and public health legislation like Clean Air and Clean Water, from business interests that are eager to sacrifice environmental health for increased profits. The conservation and education communities need to organize even better to have a chance of opposing this movement.

CG:  Can you tell us a little bit about your vision for the future of conservation?

LC: The most important thing is that we need to teach kids more about science and the environment. For some kids, that’s already happening; my 8 year old daughter knows more about science and conservation and good stewardship of the earth than I had a clue about by the time I was 20. Today’s kids are not only going to inherit the planet we leave them, they are already starting to determine what it will be like. The fact that a 2009 Gallup Poll found that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution is disturbing: it seems clear that our society has not allowed young people to be exposed to all sources of information equally. Evidenced-based decision making is being replaced by other processes that will not lead to predictable results. It is also incredibly important to travel; when you see what is happening to the rest of the world, even the rest of the United States, you can’t help but realize that we can’t continue to go on like this. Kids at all levels –primary school through college – should be given opportunities to travel to other cultures and landscapes. They need to travel openly and share experiences with common people. I don’t think most ‘grown-ups’ are going to change. If you get all your information from talk radio you’re not about to start trying to understand ecology. I’m afraid that it may take a series of environmental catastrophes to wake some people up, and at that point it may be too late for our grandchildren to have the same healthy environment that we grew up with.

I believe the future of conservation depends upon individual decisions made by every person independently to do things for the good of others, not just for personal gain. One aspect of this is “reduce your carbon footprint”. Try to live lightly on the land. In the developed nations (or ‘first world’) where we have choices, this is especially relevant. The more we can do to use less resources that come at a cost to wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and ecosystem health, the better. The more we can recycle the better. The more we can cut down on CO2 emissions the better. We can make our yards and property more wildlife friendly. We can walk and bike more, and drive less. On a broad scale we also need to promote better policy decisions, healthier regulations, large-scale habitat protection, and restrictions on practices that degrade the environment and infringe upon public health. But those measures will be ineffectual if people do not understand the reasons behind them and voluntarily make small sacrifices for the greater good.

In undeveloped countries (‘third world’) it is usually a moot point as people have no choices. It is often a question of surviving and keeping children alive versus damage to the natural world. It is a responsibility of developed nations to provide food and health care and other basic human needs so that people can reduce their impacts on the environment. In mostly-developed nations like China and India there are unique answers. In those countries (except for situations like Tibet) there is so little remaining of natural ecosystems that it is vital to protect everything diligently while trying to restore natural communities wherever possible.

See more interviews with conservationists by Chris Gertschen