Yellowstone science efforts to include greater focus on public opinion

CODY, WYO. — Yellowstone National Park’s departing top scientist says his staff has long conducted “world-class” research on animals like gray wolves and grizzly bears, but that there is room for improvement in learning more about public opinion on key issues.

David Hallac

David Hallac

David Hallac, who has spent the past three years as division chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources, begins a permanent assignment this month as superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Outer Banks Group in North Carolina.

In an interview last month about the successes and continuing challenges for Yellowstone researchers, Hallac said it is important for park managers to continue to work closely with state wildlife experts, and to develop more hard data about public perceptions of wildlife and park policies.

“We have incredible, world-class biophysical science programs,” Hallac said. “One area where where we haven’t spent a lot of time is understanding people.”

Yellowstone has recently hired a social scientist to learn more about public attitudes and perceptions on key issues, Hallac said. The goal is to build a social science program that will gather opinion data from gateway communities, for instance, and yield better insight into socio-economic aspects of park management.

Two specific areas of focus will be a look at what drives people to support a national park like Yellowstone and learning more about the opinions and attitudes of people living with bison that leave the park’s northern and western boundaries each winter.

Yellowstone continues to struggle with a long-term plan for how to handle the hundreds of bison that leave the park during harsh winter weather. That plan should be informed by solid data about public priorities in gateway towns, Hallac said.

“We can make assumptions about that, or we can go out and do rigorous study and get some data that will help us engage better and develop a more sustainable management strategy,” he said.

Though the park already works closely with state wildlife officials, it’s important to continue and expand those efforts, Hallac said.

Making the latest scientific research more widely available and easier to understand is also a priority, including continuing efforts to put data online and share news through social media, he said.

“It’s amazing how social media has taken off. It’s provided us with a platform and a set of tools that maybe we weren’t as comfortable with before, but that now we need to be fluent in,” he said.

Hallac, who spent several summer vacations with his family in the Outer Banks, said the move to North Carolina is “a great opportunity to have a different leadership position” in the National Park Service.

He praised his colleagues and said he enjoyed his time at Yellowstone, despite the tendency for nearly every issue to have the potential for public controversy.

“What surprised me the most is that almost nothing in Yellowstone is non-controversial,” Hallac said. “But I’m also surprised by how much people care. It’s heart-warming to know how much people care.”

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].

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