News » Whistler

First Person: Dr. Scott Harrison



Theories on adaptive management, sustainability and Olympic opportunities

What: Dr. Scott Harrison presents A Cougar by the Tail at the Whistler Naturalists AGM.

Where: Fairmont Chateau Whistler Frontenac Room

When: Thursday, Nov. 13. AGM starts at 6 p.m. and presentation gets underway at 7:30 p.m.

In his research on cougars, Dr. Scott Harrison discovered that when you grab a cougar by the tail, the energy it uses to take a swipe at you also pushes you out of harm’s way long enough for the tranquilizer to take effect.

A jack of all sciences, Dr. Harrison is an ecologist who studies wildlife, wilderness, sustainability and Adaptive Management.

As the keynote speaker for this year’s Whistler Naturalists Society annual general meeting, he will talk about his experiences researching cougars and the lessons in sustainability that we can learn from them.

Q: I can see by your bio that you have a background in a lot of different scientific disciplines, does that help you with your research, having a diverse background?

A: I think that reflects the ecology, and I would consider myself an ecologist. One of the things ecology is trying to understand is how things in the world relate to each other. So, in order to understand those relationships one has to understand a number of disciplines, and that’s been reflected in my training – everything from physics and biochemistry to systems ecology and how animals interact with each other.

It’s really just a quest to understand the natural world, and the world is a fairly interesting place and fairly complicated in terms of the interactions when you look into them, and that’s what I enjoy doing.

Q: You talk a little about the Olympics and how you see the developments taking a sustainable, ecological approach. Is that something you’ve given a lot of thought to?

A: Absolutely, and that’s a real focus of my work now. To understand the interactions of nature, that’s theoretical ecology, but then the applied aspect of ecology is understanding how humans relate to that world.

Of course, humans are always going to use the world, we’re going to cut down trees, we’re going to use the water and build houses, but in my view of the world, knowing the complexity of interactions, the only way we can do that justifiably is to do it sustainably.

By that I mean the ecological definition of sustainability, not an economic or political one. Ecological sustainability is about understanding the ecological processes that allow us to have clean air, water and forests, and then understanding how we can use those things sustainably. For instance, trees will grow back, but if you cut them at a faster rate than they can grow back that’s not ecologically sustainable.

Whistler exemplifies a beautiful place in the world, even in B.C., because everybody recognizes that Whistler is the place it is because of its natural heritage. The corporations recognize that, the people who come up to ski recognize that, and the people who live up there recognize that – all the people in Whistler are brought together by that natural heritage.

And so, as an ecologist, or as a naturalist club… what the Olympics represent is a chance to show how humans can interact with the landbase sustainably.

Q: Sustainability is not a new concept, but it’s only just recently been fleshed out in terms of what it might mean ecologically, economically and socially, but it’s still kind of an experiment at this point. The Olympics provides an opportunity to take that experiment to another level, to put some of the theory to work on the ground. Is that how you see the potential of the Olympics?

A: Exactly. The next phase, and this is something I’m going to talk about when I come up, is how do we do that? Sustainability is really coming to fruition now, the idea of sustainability.

Although I must say, it’s still a big step. The idea of sustainability in development that came out of the Bruntline Commission hasn’t been used all that well, it’s been used to mean whatever the person speaking wanted it to mean.

What I’m hoping we’re entering now is a better understanding of ecological sustainability. This is all big picture stuff, but we have to understand that the world is a fixed place – you go a little beyond atmosphere and there’s nothing there, it just does not support life. Everything that happens on earth is dictated by how much sun hits the planet. Then you have primary production, secondary production, those sorts of things. So it’s the ecological sustainability that’s critical. It’s not about having a few jobs for 15 years, it’s about maintaining the systems that have kept the planet functioning for millions of years.

Then the question is how do we get there, because people have lifestyles they’re not about to give up. It’s not about going back to living in caves. How do we get from the path we’re on now – the lifestyle in North America is not ecologically sustainable and the ecological footprint concept developed at University of British Columbia shows that– and change the way we go about doing things?

The answer, and this is one of the things I’m gong to talk about, is an idea called "adaptive management."

Q: How would you explain adaptive management?

A: As I wrote (in this week’s Naturespeak column), it’s essentially learning by doing. People make decisions, city councils and governments make decisions every day.

What adaptive management is is a way of making those decisions. It’s the whole process. It’s not just doing something and monitoring the results, then changing it if you don’t like it. The important part happens at the beginning. It’s actually developing a number of hypotheses – I guess in government they would be called options – and saying ‘OK look, we want to get this out of our society, this sort of lifestyle, this sort of water quality, this production from our forests.’ You also want to maintain the ecological parameters that allowed us to have this lifestyle. So, let’s come up with some options that recognize that, but are bound to realistic scenarios.

For example, Whistler might want to come up with a new bus route, and they’re not sure what’s the best way to go, the best way being serving the most people in the most efficient way. So you try a route. Then the next year you change that route.

The whole time you are keeping records and tracking some sort of measurables so in year three you can actually sit back and compare the routes.

What happens in society too often is that once decisions are made, we never revisit them.

There’s a whole series of things that go along with that as part of the formal process of adaptive management. The system looks at what is called belief networks, and there are Bayseian statistics and liklihoods where you measure up front what you expect the probabilities of certain outcomes to be.

It sounds complicated, but it’s really not. It’s really just about recognizing that we know a lot about the world already and before we make decisions we need to address the knowledge we already have.

What I hope to do with the cougar talk, is to use my experience with cougars to explain how I learned how this works. It’s very intuitive, but what’s missing in society is that there is not a formal mechanism to do this.

This is why something like the Olympics are a great opportunity, because (Whistler) will be on stage, because there will be a desire to do things in proper ways and to look at new ways of doing things.

It’s a very exciting time, and there are a lot of opportunities for council and Olympic committees to show how things can be done.

Q: Speaking of the cougar talk, I understand you spent a lot of time studying cougars with UBC.

A: I was doing graduate work at UBC and studied them for four years, commuting back and forth between the field and the university. I stayed in a cabin a lot and basically got up and followed cougars around. If I found new ones I would put radio collars on them, and I would follow the ones that have been radio-collared. Really, what I was looking at was cougar ecology and predation, looking at what they were eating and how often they were eating, and what was available.

It really was a spectacular time, they’re just absolutely incredible animals as you can imagine. Everything you might have imagined about them is so true. They really are majestic and powerful and cryptic, and are just a spectacular animal and it was a real privilege to get to spend time with them.

Q: You also helped to put together a book, Conservation Biology Principles for Forested Landscapes. Was that related to your work at UBC?

A: I was a researcher with the forest service, the Ministry of Forests, at the time and also studying for my PhD at that time at UBC. That was a book we wrote, because as a scientist, I strongly believe in the collection of data. I even have a T-shirt that students made up for me that says Show Me the Data.

That’s one of my cries. It’s okay to have opinions, it’s okay to have values, which everyone does, but ultimately when you make decisions you have to base those decision on data.

Again, that’s where adaptive management comes in because you have to have data up front, you have to collect data along the way, and one needs to evaluate that data to decide if we’re all on track.

Q: Adaptive management seems like one of those things that all people can at least understand enough to apply to their own lives, and businesses. Is that part of the concept for sustainability?

A: These are complicated issues. They may have simple solutions, but at the end of the day they’re complicated – not in the sense that they’re difficult, but because they have a lot of components. In order to be sustainable we have to understand all the components, and how they all work together.

Only by understanding the system can you make the right decision in how to direct that system.

Ecosystems are very complicated and yet we think we can manage them all the time. This again is where adaptive management comes in. Although it does have the word "management" in it, it acknowledges that ecosystems are so complex that we can’t possibly understand everything about everything, but it can help guide our solutions for ecosystems with what we have learned from science.