Building a Species Recovery Program on Trust

By Scott Johnson

The ‘alala or Hawaiian crow is an endangered bird endemic to the island of Hawaii in the Hawaiian Islands. An omnivore, the ‘alala’s former range extended over much of the southern portion of the island, in low to mid-elevation forests (~1000-6000 ft.). Exotic diseases and predators and habitat modification, among other limiting factors, contributed to the decline of the ‘alala. Despite field and captive conservation efforts that began in the 1960s, the population dwindled to approximately 12 wild birds in one remnant population by the early 1990s. This remnant population was found solely on private land: McCandless Land & Cattle Co., a family-owned ranch of approximately 35,000 acres.

Because the McCandless Ranch family had been critical of earlier attempts to recover the ‘alala, they had denied Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) access to the remaining population during most of the 1980s. The McCandless Ranch family strongly believed that research, captive flock management and invasive management techniques had severely hindered recovery of the ‘alala. In 1991, McCandless Ranch and FWS were sued by environmental groups for failing to recover the ‘alala. The settlement of the lawsuit in 1992, agreed to by all parties, suddenly provided FWS access to McCandless Ranch. More importantly, it suddenly put FWS and McCandless Ranch in very close working conditions.

My personal experience on the project began on my third day on the job after transferring from California—the first day we were allowed access to the wild ‘alala habitat during the settlement agreement talks. The tension between the FWS and McCandless Ranch was so flammable you could light it with a tiki torch. Both “sides” had preconceived notions about the other. The McCandless family clearly disagreed with much of the “active” management favored by the FWS to recover the ‘alala. Although they knew nothing of me, the ranchers quickly labeled me a “bureaucratic biologists,” their favorite term of endearment for FWS officials. FWS officials for their part viewed the McCandless bunch with equal suspicion— especially the matriarch of the family, Cynthia Salley, who, it was rumored, ate biologists for lunch.

After the lawsuit settlement, neither the biologists or ranchers were schooled in environmental negotiation, meeting facilitation, consensus-building, or any other skill that may have made those first interactions smoother. The ranchers were gracious hosts and always good humored, usually at the biologists’ expense; and those of us from the FWS did our best to not flaunt our favorite radio telemetry equipment. But the fact remained that neither the FWS nor the McCandless Ranch wanted to be working so closely together on this project. This was unfamiliar territory for most of us.

The settlement agreement proposed active management of the ‘alala, including taking eggs out of wild nests and raising chicks for release back into the wild. The FWS hired The Peregrine Fund (TPF) to conduct this work. Moreover, TPF became an important participant in the ‘alala recovery project partnership. Since that time, the Zoological Society of San Diego has taken over that role and now manages both flocks. Because the State of Hawaii had left management of the wild ‘alala to the Fish and Wildlife Service, they were not active participants in the management of the wild population. In short, the stage was set with the ranchers, the FWS, and TPF as the actors in a play we did not understand.

The FWS’s initial attempts at what we thought was partnership development included providing as much information as possible to the ranchers and TPF about proposed and current ‘alala management. A recovery team, composed of ranchers, representatives of environmental groups, researchers, and agency staff, along with a report from the National Academy of Sciences provided guidance for the recovery program. Eventually, the FWS and ranchers decided to have regular meetings to discuss ‘alala management. Yet, despite the significant brainpower thrown at the issue and the communication venue of regular meetings, a productive partnership based on mutual trust did not emerge. After a couple of years of pounding our heads against the wall, the group finally concluded that our basic flaw was just that—a lack of mutual trust.

But identifying the problem does not necessarily yield a ready solution. Many of us expected that having regular meetings and sharing of lots of information—i.e., just “doing the recovery work” —would lead to mutual trust and that a partnership would flourish. We were wrong.

Mutual trust must be developed by specific actions that have nothing to do with the actual work being conducted. In this example, mutual trust was developed outside the confines of ‘alala recovery. We needed to take a step back and work on the relationships that people had with each other. At the prospect of “relationship-building,” we collectively rolled our eyes and cringed. Yet we quickly came to the realization that we (FWS biologists, ranchers, and TPF) were already in a “relationship” with each other—it’s just that it was dysfunctional. Better meeting facilitation or faster communication of survey results over email instead of fax would not fix the situation. Rather, we needed specific actions that fundamentally changed our behavior towards each other before we even sat at the meeting table or called each other on the phone. We had to focus on trusting each other as people first before we could move on with our professional relationship. All of us were on unfamiliar ground, but we were willing to try anything to resolve our conflicts.

We began by relying on the personal experience of a TPF staff member who recommended a family therapist who had worked with many similar groups. Now at this point, you (the reader) may be thinking, “A therapist,” now I know for sure they went off the deep end.” But conceptually, the leap is not that hard to make. In many ways, we were like a family trying to work out our differences for the betterment of the group and the success of the recovery program. After we contracted the therapist and reviewed the proposed program, we decided to give it a try.

The program ran something like this. The initial three-day session, facilitated by the therapist, addressed personal background issues that had nothing to do with the actual ‘alala management program. These were not personality evaluations or methods of plugging people into behavioral categories. The sessions were simply aimed at each individual’s personal development and experiences and what each brought to the group. It was as if we asked each person to describe how he or she got to be the person they are: What books did you read? Who are your heroes, mentors, and people you respect? Where did you grow up? What are your experiences with your family? The information was given out voluntarily by each individual. Nothing was prescribed; there was no wrong answer; we were not forced to do or say anything that made us uncomfortable. This was a forum to articulate who we think we are as people, not as biologists or ranchers.

This first session allowed participants to see each other as unique yet to uncover some surprisingly common experiences. Heretofore unknown but overlapping experiences surfaced that created instant bonds between individuals who had previously seen each other as only a “biologist” or a “rancher.” Another startling experience for most people was how mistaken they were about some individuals. For example, Cynthia Salley at first tended to be highly critical of ‘alala recovery efforts and she was branded by FWS biologists as an extremely unfriendly and outright hostile person. Yet, we learned that she donated vast amounts of time to various volunteer programs in the community and church and was extremely active in statewide child abuse prevention. Having two children myself, her efforts at grassroots improvements in children’s lives touched me deeply. Several in the group, instantly changed their opinion of this individual when faced with the fact that she was so dedicated to making their community a better place to live.

The first session created a much greater sense of community and intimacy within the group. This gave us our first hint of mutual trust—we were beginning to know each other as people. Whereas the first session was not focused on ‘alala recovery, the second session was all about going back over our current and future management activities. That session was highly productive. We discussed the biology of the ‘alala and also the effects the project had on the economy of the ranchers. We developed a shared vision, mission statement, goals, and tasks. We developed actions that improved ‘alala management and activities that helped the ranchers economically. The result was a “living” document. I say “living” since it is a document that everyone accepts as a working document that requires significant oversight and updates. The partnership too is considered a “living” entity, and when new members arrive on the project, sessions are held to develop and manage mutual trust.

Since the first sessions of partnership development, the process has not always been smooth. In addition, the ‘alala has not fared well. While captive flock management has improved, the wild population has suffered heavy predation by the endemic ‘io, or Hawaiian hawk, as well as other mortalities. The population is now only three individuals in the wild. Some birds were recaptured and returned to the captive flock to bolster that population. Plans are being developed to essentially release birds in other areas after a more stable captive flock is secured.

The partnership has stumbled as new members join the group. These individuals have not endured the same difficult road that other members have faced. Changes in FWS personnel causes certain relationships to change and new ones to develop. The key lesson is that partnerships and mutual trust cannot be taken for granted; nor can they be expected to continue as members come and go.

This is just one example of partnership development. All partnership efforts must focus on key building blocks in the development of their groups. The most fundamental of these is mutual trust. The ‘alala has not recovered. But the ability to develop common goals among the stakeholders makes the business of species recovery a much more cohesive and productive effort.

Editor’s Note: This article expresses the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Fish and Wildlife Service or other partners. These views are based on past experiences and do not necessarily reflect the current situation.

For more information:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ecological Services, Box 50088, Honolulu, Hawaii 96850

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2 Comments

  • A Hiker March 30, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    The forest service ran over and killed one of the few remaining birds during their “active” management. So much for their management skill.

    Reply

  • Janet Scully February 28, 2013 at 9:28 am

    You conveniently forgot to mention that the alleged conservationists killed all 12 birds that were living in the wild on the McCandless Ranch before they were studied to death by the experts. The ranchers got this one right; too bad you didn’t. It was your meddling that killed all the remaining birds that lived in the wild on the Big Island, not the respectful ranchers.

    Reply

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