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Coexisting with carnivores in King County

Posted by: Alicia Highland, Education

A black bear's image caught by a remote camera in a Woodland Park Zoo study of local carnivores. Photo: Woodland Park Zoo.

How many times has a carnivore interacted with your waste containers (garbage, compost, recycling) in the previous 12 months?” asks the neighbor survey crafted by Issaquah middle schoolers. The students are trying to understand how their community’s garbage habits—what kinds of cans and lids they use or whether they store compost indoors—relate to encounters with bears, raccoons and cougars.

Issaquah and the neighboring communities of east King County lie at the intersection of expanding urban settlement and iconic wilderness. Surrounded by forested mountains on three sides and Lake Sammamish to the north, the area is also home to abundant wildlife including some of Washington’s most charismatic carnivores: black bears, coyotes, bobcats, and cougars. At the interface of urbanization and wilderness, there is sometimes human-animal conflict. However, through their work with Woodland Park Zoo, Issaquah School District’s 6th grade Life Science students are applying Next Generation Science learning and 21st Century Skills to educate their community about peaceful coexistence with carnivores.

Students at Issaquah Middle School work through their survey data sets. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

This summer, King County voters have the opportunity to vote YES for Proposition 1 – Access for All and bring science education opportunities like this to every child in the county. Proposition 1 will provide funding to Woodland Park Zoo and more than 350 non-profit organizations to significantly expand learning experiences for all of King County’s communities, from Skykomish to Vashon and Enumclaw to Shoreline.

Successful programs like Coexisting with Carnivores are models for how we can bring science learning into communities to address their specific needs. Wild Wise: Coexisting with Carnivores offers students a chance to develop their science inquiry, civic literacy, and leadership skills as they investigate solutions for living with the carnivores in their east King County communities. Students and teachers from Beaver Lake Middle School, Issaquah Middle School, and Pine Lake Middle School engage with zoo educators over a period of four months, developing and carrying out scientific investigations. Zoo educators also teach the students about carnivore biology and wildlife research field methods. The culmination of Coexisting with Carnivores is a town hall style event, where students present their scientific findings and evidence-based recommendations to the community.

Pacific Northwest Carnivore Program at Woodland Park Zoo

Students begin their research at Woodland Park Zoo’s Northern Trail exhibit, where they participate in the zoo-facilitated Pacific Northwest Carnivore Program. Like the zoo’s other Living Northwest conservation programs, the Pacific Northwest Carnivore Program helps students to better understand conservation efforts that focus on native species restoration, habitat protection, wildlife education and human-wildlife conflict mitigation across the Pacific Northwest.

Through the utilization of interpretation, play, and experiential learning, zoo educators introduce students to the natural history of carnivores in Washington State. Students learn about the socially and ecologically complex wolf recovery effort, the conservation of brown bears (grizzlies), and scientific methods for researching carnivores, including GPS wildlife tracking and DNA collection methods. At the end of their trip, students leave the zoo with a stronger understanding of the important roles carnivores play in maintaining the natural balance of Washington’s ecosystems. They also have a greater sense of the roles that students can play in shaping community thought and action. Following their trip to the zoo, students engage the greater Issaquah area in their research by interviewing community members about their observations of local carnivores. These interviews provide the framework for the students’ scientific investigations.

Issaquah Middle School students observe gray wolves at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo: Katie Remine/Woodland Park Zoo.

Wild Wise Classroom Program and Western Wildlife Outreach Program

Once students have completed their interviews, zoo educators visit classes and lead the students in a Wild Wise interactive multimedia presentation. Students learn about the wildlife-human interface of the Cascade foothills and about research methods they can use to carry out their investigations. Most importantly, students are introduced to the two essential questions that drive their scientific investigations: 1.) How are carnivores using resources in their community to meet their needs? and 2.) How can humans meet their needs while allowing carnivores to meet their needs?

Students also engage with Western Wildlife Outreach (WWO) staff and their Large Carnivore Education Outreach Trailer. By providing students with hands-on opportunities with animal pelts, bones, and skulls, WWO helps students to better understand the elements of coexistence with carnivores.

Students watching the presentation by Western Wildlife Outreach. Photo: Alicia Highland/Woodland Park Zoo.

Developing an Investigation

Once students have become familiar with the carnivores in their community, they dive into their investigations. Teachers take the lead and work with their students to develop research questions and methods. After classes have an investigative question, zoo educators help them to refine their methods and send the students off to collect data. Students analyze their data, interpret the results and draw conclusions. Based on their findings, students identify the most important messages and actions that they want to communicate to their communities about safe coexistence with carnivores.

A student works on interpreting the data. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Educating the Community

The culmination of the Coexisting with Carnivores program is the community event. Students step into the spotlight and become scientific experts, a sweet reward for several months of intensive work. They share findings from their scientific investigations on how carnivores use resources in the Issaquah area to meet their needs. The students also provide evidence-based recommendations that assist the community in making carnivore positive choices. 

If you are curious about or have experience living near wild carnivores, please join us for these events! They will be held at Beaver Lake Middle School on June 14 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. and Issaquah Middle School on June 15 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. 

We would like to thank the teachers and students who participated with such dedication this school year! We also appreciate the support of Issaquah Schools Foundation, Horizons Foundation, The Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation and Tulalip Tribes to provide these learning opportunities for Issaquah students. Through partnerships and programs such as this, Woodland Park Zoo brings engaging science learning opportunities to both rural and urban communities. These experiences provide inspiration for future generations to pursue careers in STEM, and to address environmental issues in their communities.

If you live in King County, please vote YES for Proposition 1 – Access for All this summer so that we may be able to greatly expand educational programming to meet the needs of all communities.