How close do you live to the wildlife around you? No matter if you live in an urban area or a rural one, it can be surprising to find out how closely we share our world with other animals.
As part of my dissertation research, I’ve been collecting motion-triggered wildlife photos in Southern Oregon. One night, after I collected the latest round of cameras, I sat down to share the photos with the people who let me set them on their land. We came to one series of photos that got everyone excited.
Photo 1: A golf cart with kids coming back from the river. “That’s me!” someone exclaimed. Photo 2: Nine minutes later, a black bear, sniffing its way along the same path.
We gasped and laughed as we realized how close the animals are with whom we share space. On that same camera we saw deer, turkeys, coyotes, rabbits, all sharing space with people and our horses, dogs, golf carts and bicycles. Seeing these photos gives me hope for our ability to coexist, but it also makes it clear that when we live in such close proximity, our actions can have large consequences on the world around us.
One of the latest manifestations of this potential impact comes from the increase of cannabis production in rural Southern Oregon and Northern California. While there are many anecdotes of cannabis’ negative impact, and certainly if you talk with locals they make it clear that the industry has changed surrounding landscapes, there are no data on these changes-leaving a big unknown in a rapidly growing industry.
Seeing these photos gives me hope for our ability to coexist, but it also makes it clear that … our actions can have large consequences on the world around us.
To address some of these unknowns, my research involves mapping cannabis production over time from Google Earth images. I combine these maps with wildlife monitoring data that I collect in partnership with land owners and cannabis farmers, and experimental trials to look at mechanisms of indirect impact on animal communities. The focus of the work is to understand and project the effects of the cannabis industry on wildlife in order to inform sustainable agricultural practices, policy and management decisions, and our understanding of how rural development shapes of wildlife occupancy and activity patterns.
Why study cannabis? Studying cannabis is important if we want policies and land use decisions that are informed by science. Unfortunately, because of cannabis’ federal illegal status as a Schedule I drug, there has been very little research on its effects on the environment. Despite rumors of a collapsing industry, cannabis seems to be here to stay, so researching the effects of the industry provides an opportunity to inform its future trajectory and gives us the power as a community to decide what we want that market to look like. This opportunity is rare and at an exciting formative moment.
It is also important to study cannabis because it is a unique crop. The policies, culture, and history surrounding cannabis, far more than any qualities of the plant itself, have shaped the ways in which it is grown so that it stands apart as both more industrialized in practice and more parceled into many smaller farms. Landscape ecology has traditionally focused on heavily degraded or fragmented habitats; rarely do we get to study impacts in an emerging industry while it is still a point source disturbance.
Finally, I have a personal interest in studying the cannabis industry in Southern Oregon, since it’s where I’m from. I wanted to research a topic where I had a chance to make conservation recommendations in a place that has meaning for me.
In order to study the effects of cannabis on wildlife, the Google Earth imagery will map the extent and expansion of outdoor and greenhouse cultivation. The data from the motion-triggered wildlife camera traps will monitor animal activity at different distances from cannabis cultivation. I will soon add small mammal traps and acoustic monitors to this data collection procedure, and begin experimental trials testing the effects of light and noise on animal occupancy. The success of this research hinges on partnerships with farms like East Fork Cultivars, as well as other producers on private lands that are not part of the legalized system. A main goal of mine is to work with the community and farmers themselves.
The success of this research hinges on partnerships with farms … [and] other producers on private lands that are not part of the legalized system.
While I am genuinely unsure of what most of my research will reveal, I have several expected results or hypotheses that inform my questions. Here are a few of them:
For the mapping data, I expect that production will increase after legalization and then level off, and that production will be clustered around areas that were under cultivation before legalization (essentially infilling around those areas). I expect that different wildlife species will respond differently to cannabis production, thereby creating novel groups of animals around cannabis farms that are different from what we would see in the surrounding landscape. I also except that the behavior of wildlife will shift in response to light and sound disturbance, creating more nocturnal wildlife communities.
I plan to combine the mapping data and wildlife responses to project the potential impact of the cannabis industry under different development scenarios. Above all, I hope I can help increase our understanding of the ways in which we too are part of the ecological systems around us, and use that knowledge to shape a more sustainable and equitable future.
If any of this sounds interesting, please contact Phoebe (firstname.lastname@example.org). She is looking for more cannabis farms in Southern Oregon and Northern California to participate. It’s a great way to find out what animals are present on your land, and it can be fulfilling to participate in local research targeted to your needs. Policy is already being made on this topic without data, so this is a new opportunity to engage in research that can inform decision-making.