Dr. David Reilly is director of international studies and chair of the department of political science at Niagara University. He has applied his formal study of ideological dissemination to the foundation of the Citizen Coalition of Wildlife and Environment in Grand Island, New York, combatting fur trapping on public land and other infringements on wild habitats by humans.
Jonah: Tell us about the Citizen Coalition of Wildlife and Environment.
Dave: We started the organization a little more than a year ago. We live on a small island in western New York that sits between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. It’s a fairly suburban community, but our area of the island is pretty rural, mainly farms. And my fiancé’s family grew up on the island, so we have a nice area of 33 acres.
Well, we were walking on the edge of our property and we came across traps—steel leghold traps—and so we went to the town and asked for a clarification because we were on a moderately used trail—not just by us but by other members of the community—and we were told that there’s no restriction on animal trapping on the island on public land.
So that sort of mobilized us to get involved, to try to make a difference in the issue, and ever since we’ve been working on getting trapping banned on public land: it’s inhumane and cruel and not even an effective management tool. In starting up that campaign, we educated ourselves about not just that issue but a broader set of issues involving wildlife and saw a real need in this area, in western New York, for starting up an organization that is focused on protecting habitat that remains wild or is restored to wild.
J: That sounds fantastic. It’s incredibly surprising that in an area that’s mostly farmland there wouldn’t be any restrictions at all on where you can trap.
D: Yeah, well on private land there are restrictions, but on public land, it’s—well, it’s amazing. If you think of wildlife as a public resource, and I don’t, and to me that’s an unfair way to cast it; but even if you were to take sort of the capitalist approach to it you could say, “You’re not allowed to cut trees on public land, you’re not allowed to remove resources from the earth. Why would you be allowed to remove wildlife?”
The secondary argument (and the one that I find most compelling) is that there are very few wild spaces that remain and to the extent that our town or anyone else can contribute to protecting and maintaining those, they should. You know, they haven’t done any studies on how trapping will matter for trophic cascades or for the relationship between animals and nature itself, in spite of the fact that studies are showing that even minor changes to wildlife that are man-induced can have important implications. So we’ve taken the opportunity to really try and be a vehicle for change in that regard, to try and educate and change the mindset about why protecting wildlife is so important.
J: So outside of trapping on public land specifically, you said that y’all had been working on some other projects to change how people interact with the environment there and to protect wild spaces. What have those projects been, and how have y’all gone about that?
D: Well we have a number of different activities that are underway, but first and foremost is education. So we’ve brought in a number of experts who can speak to coexistence strategies. Our first talk, for example, was bringing in a wildlife rehabilitator and a specialist on foxes and coyotes, to understand what the threats are and to understand how you can reduce the kinds of interactions that might lead to conflict with wildlife.
And there’s a lot of concern about coyotes: “Will they eat our children? Will they eat our little dogs when we take them for walks?”
But what you find is that coyotes—when they’re left to their own devices, left in the wild—they pose absolutely no threat whatsoever to humans, and in fact over a 45-year study, it was found that there were only 142 incidents with coyotes and humans (an incident being a bite), and up to last year or maybe one or two years ago, only one person had been killed by a coyote; and that person was a toddler. The parents had actually handed the toddler a chicken leg and told it to go out and feed the coyotes.
So the conflict occurs when people go and try to engage in some level of domestication. It’s inevitable that conflict then becomes a problem. Coyotes should be wild. They are wild, and they need to remain wild, and to the extent that we encourage or allow something different—that’s where we run into problems.
J: Regarding the counterarguments that you’ve received from trappers around that area: In those counterarguments, and in other interactions with local governments and things like that, what are the biggest obstacles that you’ve encountered?
D: I’d say the biggest is ignorance. Just as in many other fields, there is an attempt to undermine scientific research. From the national government, there’s an agency called Wildlife Services that’s a part of—if I’m not mistaken—the Department of Agriculture, that engages in a variety of tactics that are not just inhumane but absolutely atrocious. They use cyanide that sprays into the predator’s mouth, that’s planted out mostly out in the western states to protect cattle and sheep. These are the same agencies that would support hunting from helicopters and that sort of thing.
Their justifications are based on a misappropriation of science and the idea that by killing coyotes, killing wolves or other predators, you’re reducing a threat. But the scientific evidence is that these animals not only rebound but compensate and grow their packs in reaction to whatever threats exist on them. The kind of “management” strategies that they would recommend are simply wrong.
The other thing we hear, often from trappers around here, is that it’s tradition, that their families have been trapping for years and years, and these guys are just doing what they know and carrying on that tradition. But from our perspective, slavery likewise played a big part in building our country and in the history of our country, too; but we certainly don’t celebrate it or try to preserve its legacy because of that. And it’s not a strategy—trapping, specifically—that’s needed to control coyotes or other “nuisance” animals. It’s not effective. It doesn’t address things like rabies and other sicknesses that are serious concerns, and it harms the animals in ways that trappers would deny.
J: So if the problem is ignorance, what sort of strategies have you found useful or have you thought about using outside of education, for situations in which education can’t reach people, or with those who aren’t receptive to it?
D: The first is embedded in our name: the “Coalition.” We realize that there are a number of organizations that have comparable missions to what we’re trying to accomplish. Whether they’re successful in this is a different issue. But right off the bat we wanted to tap into those resources. There are limitations to any NGO or interest group, but when you pair groups together with a number of others they can be successful. That kind of coalition-building has had really solid results for us and has worked not just to build a constituency but also to show that this is not just a group of ten people from Grand Island with a one-issue concern.
Off of that, we’ve engaged in everything you might expect from an organization: attending public hearings, speaking at every meeting, making sure we correct whatever misinformation is presented at the town level, letter-writing to newspapers, working with elected officials right up the chain, media outreach…
So we do those sorts of traditional things, but our objective is to really demonstrate our commitment to take repeated action, to demonstrate a resolve—that we’re not simply going to walk away if we’re unsuccessful this time, that we’ll continue to fight this. Now that we’re in some ways beyond the trapping issue, we’re trying tobecome a resource within the community, to be much more proactive in addressing issues of wildlife protection and habitat protection. For example, there’s a large granting organization in this area called the Niagara River Greenway Commission. We’re asking them to include considerations of impact on wildlife in all their granting applications, to make sure that they take that into consideration.
So we’ve gone from a sort of defensive posture in dealing with that one issue of trapping to dealing with a much broader set of concerns. And I think we’re of the opinion that the strategies that we’ll use—whether it’s political strategies, direct action, whatever it might be—that that’s contingent upon what the issue is and what accomplishes that end best. I think, just watching the news today and seeing what changes are being implemented at a national level, I think we all have to be prepared to employ a variety of tactics to have an impact. Issues like this are gonna be harder to work toward because I think there’s a blatant disregard for wildlife and no concerns about coexistence in the current administration.
J: Especially since just recently the president ordered the EPA and the USDA not to talk to media.
D: Yeah, yeah, and the Park Service, which gets virtually no funding whatsoever. I don’t think you have to like the Park Service to recognize that it was created with a common good in mind. And it’s gonna be gutted. I don’t think there’s any question that Trump and his cabinet appointees have every intention of exploiting our natural resources as resources. And for us, it even goes down to the level of having to rethink the language that we use. When we talk about a “natural resource,” we’re commodifying it. We have to be very careful about those kinds of things.
J: And with the current administration being such an extreme case of what we’ve talked about, where the ignorance toward these issues or even the oversight of them is just willful, how do you think that direct action-focused approaches (which may become more necessary) can be balanced with mainstream strategies?
D: I think there’s a time and a place for everything. It’s a matter of identifying what the most useful strategy is. I find myself watching the actions our government was taking and is now taking again with regard to Standing Rock, and it strikes me that at some point a line has to be drawn in the sand. There has to be a commitment to resisting—using whatever means necessary—the kinds of exploitation that put us all at risk, which includes how you treat wildlife and how you treat the environment more generally.
I don’t have really a fixed concept of “This is when to use direct action, this is when not to,” but I do think that you can’t eliminate the idea of being ready to use more radical tactics to accomplish a broader set of goals. Especially when you see the kinds of encroachments that are being made on areas where we’ve already won battles—that’s one way to put it. The feeling that we’re moving backward not forward.
I teach political science, and we were having a conversation in class today on the question of what is progress, and I had to define for the students the concept of “common good” because it’s not something we talk about any more in society. To me that’s an incredibly sad thing. To them, progress is simply defined for them: technological development, the maximization and accumulation of wealth, improved efficiency. But when you ask them, “To what end?”, they don’t have an answer. That’s sort of taking us off on a tangent, but to take it back to the question of what tactics to use, we’ve got to think of the bigger picture, of where we’re headed. In my first class I said to my students that I’m a Luddite (or at least a Luddite wannabe): I don’t see the value in technology in itself. I see potential positive applications of it, sure, but I also see that for every technological advance there are also drawbacks that we have to consider.
J: Definitely. Seems like it’s even more important to ask those sorts of questions now when, even by some traditional metrics of progress, we’re taking steps backward on a whole bunch of fronts.
So now that Citizen Coalition has started taking a wide array of actions on a local level and has partnered with national organizations, how do you scale up the sorts of educational strategies you’ve been implementing to a national level (if that needs to happen)? And if we’re thinking about a mix of tactics without explicitly defined contexts for use, how can a movement with that sort of case-by-case strategy be scaled-up?
D: There’s a lot there. (Laughs.) So let me try and answer that in—not really in a roundabout way, but I’ll give you a few pieces and you tell me at the end whether I answered your question:
My research started with an interest in studying diffusion, in looking at how ideas spread, in looking at communication and what facilitates or inhibits it, and what facilitates or inhibits innovation (innovation being maybe democratization, human rights, or something else). From that starting point I’ve moved in recent years to looking at mass surveillance and the chilling effects it’s had on social movements.
I asked, to what extend does collaboration, communication, coordination of social movements get eliminated or at least truncated by surveillance? Part of what I would draw from that research in terms of lessons is the importance of working at the local level, to build a strong base of understanding for basic ideas and tenets. What we’re really trying to do in the development of the Citizen Coalition is to educate and to build a base of support for our ideas that can grow over time.
But I think you’re absolutely right that one of the critical questions is how to aggregate this to a larger level. If communities were to take the same kind of approach we’re working with, and if you saw these same sorts of organic citizens’ efforts on a massive scale, coordination at some level would probably be necessary if there’s an endpoint that they’re working toward collectively, but I don’t even think that necessarily has to happen.
To me the value is in the engagement and the education that occur within each of those communities, and the effects thereof can be additive and be valuable in their own right. If we’re talking about a question of how to combat a government or a specific project that requires mass coordination, I think that becomes a more difficult proposition. What you have to hope is that there are organizations with the ability to tap into existing local infrastructures and organizations that can help to populate your movement on a massive scale.
Looking at social movements, one of the most effective facilitators of engagement is threat. I think there’s a natural tendency to coalesce around a specific effort then to basically fall off once that has passed. So in thinking about the current administration and where we’re headed, one of the things that I wrote about the day after the election was that in many ways I think that the election of Trump can be perceived as a positive for radicals. The reason I say that is that I don’t have any reason to believe a Clinton administration would’ve done anything other than preserve the status quo.
I think Trump—and this is bearing itself out in ways that are absolutely going to be painful—is going to bring people out into the streets. He’s going to engage a population that otherwise would’ve passively sat by and would’ve given a Clinton administration not only the benefit of the doubt but very little attention. That has the potential to lead to fundamental change within the system.
As an optimist, or at least as one who has some hope, I view the election of Trump as a catalyst to engage a population that otherwise would’ve remained relatively dormant. When I think about what we can do on a local level to facilitate that, our preparation and our ability to connect individuals and give them an easy way to enter processes of challenging the government or challenging a set of laws or ideas, and our having some experience and having done that, can make a big difference.
J: Last thing I’ve got for you: Is there any information you’d want to give people, to help them to understand what you’re doing or what they could be doing better?