Expanding Problem Frames to Understand Human-wildlife Conflicts in Urban-proximate Parks


  • Kirsten M. Leong
  • Daniel J. Decker
  • John Forester
  • Paul D. Curtis
  • Margaret A. Wild


messy problem, suburban wildlife, problem framing


Landscape change that accompanies urbanization is leading to increased frequency and intensity of human-wildlife interactions. Many urban-proximate National Park Service (NPS) units are experiencing encroachment from development. This context presents increasingly complex wildlife management challenges for parks and recreation administrators and managers. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) have been a major concern for over two decades in urban-proximate NPS units in the northeastern U.S., where biological studies have documented deer density, movement, and impact on park resources. Typically, NPS managers frame deer issues as population-management problems. The extent to which vegetation damage by deer affects the integrity of the unit’s resource protection goals and objectives determines whether deer population levels in parks are acceptable or unacceptable, and to what extent. Deer that use urban-proximate parks also use habitats in surrounding communities and cause impacts to local community residents. Little research has assessed the scope of resident stakeholder understanding of the deer-management system for urban-proximate parks administered by the NPS. This study utilized semi-structured interviews with residents of communities near two parks to describe the potential breadth of complex deer issues and contributing factors (i.e., the management system). At both study sites, interviewees revealed the management system as a multilevel system of factors that contributed to perceived deer problems: (I) anthropogenic activities were seen to result in (II) broad ecological effects, causing (III) events or interactions between deer and people or resources, some of which lead to (IV) habituation of deer to anthropogenic activities, amplifying (V) perception of specific impacts experienced by stakeholders. A conceptual model was developed to visually depict the perceived relationship between the different system components. The NPS management frame and the dominant discourses at each park then were mapped onto the conceptual model to illustrate how differences in framing can contribute to suburban wildlife controversies. At both parks, the dominant discourse differed from the NPS management frame, illustrating that suburban deer issues are more than just complex; they are “messy.” Messy problems, while fundamentally complex, do not have a single problem formulation. Conceptual models like the one described in this study may be used as a starting point for future discourse-based stakeholder engagement processes to facilitate mutual learning between stakeholders and managers that expands perspectives beyond conventional problem frames to create sustainable solutions.