Are We Coexisting With Carnivores in the American West?
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Human-carnivore coexistence is an oft-stated goal but assumptions about what constitutes coexistence can lead to goal misalignment and undermine policy and program efficacy. Questions about how to define coexistence remain and specific goals and methods for reaching coexistence require refining. Co-adaptation, where humans adapt to carnivores and vice versa, is a novel socioecological framework for operationalizing coexistence but has yet to be comprehensively examined. We explored co-adaptation and two additional coexistence criteria through analysis of three case studies involving large carnivores in the American West, each addressing differing approaches on how and what it means to coexist with carnivores: Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) in Arizona and New Mexico, grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and coyotes (Canis latrans) throughout the American West. We used a multiple case study design that analyzed within and across cases to understand coexistence broadly. For each case, we asked (1) are landscapes shared in space and/or time, (2) is co-adaptation occurring and (3) do stakeholders consider risks tolerable? To identify whether coexistence criteria are met, we investigated peer-reviewed published articles and news media and conducted key informant interviews. We found clear evidence to support land-sharing between humans and coyotes and limited spatial overlap between humans and grizzly bears and Mexican gray wolves. Co-adaptation was variable for wolves, possible with bears and clearly evident with coyotes. Tolerable risk levels are likely achievable for bears and coyotes based on the available literature assessing risk perceptions and tolerance. But disagreement regarding risk management is a driver of conflict over wolves and persistent barrier to achieving coexistence among diverse stakeholders. Patterns in coexistence criteria did not emerge based on taxonomy or geography but may be influenced by body size and behavioral plasticity. The common key to coexistence with each considered carnivore may be in more equitable distribution of costs and benefits among highly diverse stakeholders. Better understanding of these three coexistence criteria and innovative tools to achieve them will improve coexistence capacity with controversial carnivores on public and private lands in diverse American West contexts and beyond.