I was the victim of a human-wildlife encounter.

As I filled in the first tentative hole that offered a gateway under the back porch, I hoped that my visitor would not return. A few weeks later, it announced its annexation of the property with repeated sulfur-smelling spritzes.

Stressed and angry that the sanctity of my home was invaded, I was uncertain about what to do next. I tried everything to persuade my visitor to leave. It became a war, and it was horrible.

I imagine the skunk felt the same.

Commiseration and practical advice arrived through Jim Parkhurst, associate professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. Parkhurst has built a 35-year career around solving and preventing the problems that arise when people and wildlife find themselves in close quarters.

Thinking about — and often interceding in — what Parkhurst calls “the whole realm of conflict” was not an initial career aspiration until he began researching wildlife raids on fish hatcheries for his Ph.D. He then landed a position as a four-state regional Extension specialist stationed at the University of Massachusetts, charged with resolving human-wildlife conflicts.

Parkhurst liked the work, which was interesting and challenging. He also sensed that this was an arena likely to gain momentum. “It was pretty clear that this was not something that was going to go away. If anything, this was going to get bigger, more complicated.”

A man and four students stand in a field of high grass in front of trees.
Associate Professor Jim Parkhurst (at left) and students in the Ecology and Management of Wetlands Systems course visited a nearby wetland area at Blacksburg’s Heritage Park. Photo by Madi Haun for Virginia Tech.

Human-wildlife encounters on the rise

Parkhurst was right that the issues were not going away, and his next gig, with what is now the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, was a three-way appointment in teaching, research, and the area where he would spend the majority of his time: Extension.

He began with a focus on helping property owners implement land management plans that both increased profitability and enhanced wildlife habitats. He soon saw a need to prepare and assist Virginia’s county-based Extension agents, many of whom do not have backgrounds in wildlife management, in their efforts to educate the public about wildlife and deal with local challenges.

Parkhurst now spends approximately 70 percent of his time managing wildlife-human encounters. Over the years, and in addition to his human clients, he has worked in some capacity with deer, bear, turkey, grouse, elk, skunks, raccoons, opossum, coyotes, bats, snakes, squirrels, and vultures.

He is the go-to guy in Southwest Virginia and across the commonwealth, called upon by public officials, the media, and residents when squirrels chew through power lines, foxes appear in backyards, or bears wander into busy intersections.

Parkhurst acknowledges that human-wildlife conflicts are on the rise because of increasing numbers of humans and animals converging in populous areas. Additionally, many wildlife species display exceptional adaptability and appear quite comfortable living in proximity to humans.

Take for, example, the headline-grabbing bears. Black bears have always been in and around the commonwealth, especially in the mountains west of Interstate 81. As their numbers slowly increased, bears expanded their range and are now moving south and east, traveling from the mountains into the Piedmont and onward to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

As a result, the trash, bird seed, compost, and pet food people place outside their homes have become easy meals for bears exploring new neighborhoods.

“The ready availability of all those attractants can entice a bear that may be dispersing and looking for new territory to stop,” said Parkhurst. “And maybe it wasn't an issue before because there weren't as many bears, but as they're expanding, it's becoming a bigger issue, particularly in areas where people have not had to really deal with them before. You got away with it in the past. Today, you're not getting away with it anymore.”

Helping people and changing habits

Although the wildlife clients may garner more attention, Parkhurst said the rewarding part of the job is working with people and helping them resolve their problem or gain new insights. “You know, most people are just happy to get help today, and even if a problem may not have been completely fixed the way they had originally hoped, it at least made life a bit better,” Parkhurst said.

And as for the most challenging part of his Virginia Cooperative Extension work? “Same thing!”

“It’s not easy. It’s complex,” Parkhurst said of managing the human side of conflicts. “There are many pieces to it, and you can't overlook any one of those pieces or it's not going to get you where you want to be, so it's a process. I guess the frustrating part is you know why people are having difficulties and conflicts.”

One reason human-wildlife encounters are on the rise is that it’s not just wildlife that are on the move. As Virginia’s urban population grows, people are building homes and developing areas that were once rural or forested land and are still home to many species of wildlife.

Problems can start with routine behaviors that are part of our everyday lives. People take out the trash, feed pets on the porch, and top off backyard bird feeders, not thinking about the wildlife that are still living in and around their new home.

As a result, humans are responsible for creating some of their own issues. On the positive side, they also have the ability to understand why wildlife may be coming on their properties and learn how to prevent further conflicts.

Throughout his career, Parkhurst has spearheaded a variety of prevention efforts. In past years, he’s traveled throughout Virginia, providing professional development to regional Extension agents and speaking with residents and community groups when “hot topics” arise.

Currently, he’s working to take prevention into the digital space by preparing a series of monthly Zoom sessions. Extension agents can join him to discuss their top priorities such as chronic wasting disease, deer and bear management, and collaborations with landowners.

Parkhurst has also partnered with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources on projects ranging from developing statewide management plans for elk and boating access to advocating for the toll-free Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline. Help is now only a phone call away at 855-571-9003 for residents and communities with wildlife questions and concerns.

“For many of those kinds of calls, you spend your time doing the education, and there really isn't a need to do anything from a remedial effect other than changing their perspective on the issue as to what is normal and expected for the species involved. In other cases, you can identify some things the individual may be doing that need to be corrected — you recommend human behavioral fixes. Many conflicts are pretty easily resolved without the need to capture or handle the animal.”

Getting ahead of the next big challenge

One new facet of Parkhurst’s work that has been “really taking off” over the last six to seven years and potentially poses more danger to humans and wildlife alike is wildlife diseases such as rabies, Lyme disease, and sarcoptic mange.

Because there is still so much we don’t know, this work requires continuous attention to stay ahead of the research in identifying what's next and what people need to do to prepare to protect themselves and wildlife resources.

But whether he is studying the spread of disease, calming an urban homeowner, or helping a colleague dissuade a persistent skunk, Parkhurst’s approach — learned and perfected over many years of dealing with people and wildlife — will most likely be the same: Ask a lot of questions. Get as much information as possible. Follow up and get other people involved who can help. Don’t make assumptions. Try to find a solution that works for each conflict.

“I kind of look at these things as always an opportunity,” said Parkhurst.  “How can we improve? How do we elevate people's understanding: their knowledge and respect for wildlife? What are the mechanisms that we can use to promote better coexistence?”

And always, he said, “A little bit of help can make a difference. We've got to make the effort to try to help people.”

And, I guess, even skunks.

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