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Complex human-deer interactions challenge conventional management approaches: the need to consider power, trust, and emotion

Taylor R. Stinchcomb, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University
Zhao Ma, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University
Zoe Nyssa, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University


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In the United States, the management of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) has typically focused on improving hunting opportunities and mitigating human-deer conflicts. Yet the expansion and diversification of human communities and activities implies that human-deer interactions may also be diversifying. Approaches based on complex adaptive systems theories have been posited as a way to better attend to the diversity of these interactions between humans and wildlife. Using Indiana as a case, this study draws from the Integrated Adaptive Behavior Model (IABM) to understand human-deer interactions as a complex system. We use empirical social science to understand how citizens across Indiana perceive deer populations, what outcomes they desire, and how these perceptions could be integrated into Indiana’s deer management plan. In Indiana, neither wildlife managers nor researchers have assessed public perceptions of deer beyond hunting and farming stakeholders. From May to September 2019, we collected 59 semi-structured interviews and two focus groups (n = 14) with deer stakeholders including woodland owners, farmers, deer hunters, and urban area residents. Through mixed inductive-deductive coding, we found that Indiana citizens hold complex emotions toward deer regardless of their stakeholder identity. Factors influencing these emotions include past experiences, current livelihood and behavioral contexts, beliefs about responsibilities and ethics in deer management, and beliefs about other social groups. Our results suggest that the IABM, despite adding in much-needed complexity and realism to the analysis of human-wildlife interactions, still lacks explanatory power over several important dynamics that emerged from our interviews. Here, we discuss how mixed emotions, situational context, and power dynamics challenge conventional management approaches that focus narrowly on mitigating human-deer conflicts, and that reduce public interests to demographic categorizations. To better inform social-ecological governance, models of complex human behavior should account for power within management institutions and across management scales. Our work contributes a refined understanding of how multidimensional emotions and experiences influence public (dis)interest in natural resource management, and what this implies for managers who aim to balance competing social interests with ecological conditions.

Key words

complex systems; governance; human-wildlife interactions; North America; social-ecological systems; white-tailed deer; wildlife management

Copyright © 2022 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087