They have surprised the users of public toilets by their sudden appearances and stopped a children’s soccer match by ambling onto the field. They have frolicked in a community swimming pool and shut down an urban road for weeks. One even gave birth near the 13th hole of a golf course.
Sea lions once flourished along New Zealand’s coasts. But over hundreds of years, human hunting diminished their numbers and drove them to subantarctic islands hundreds of miles south. In recent decades the animals — which are one of the world’s rarest sea lion species — began, slowly and unexpectedly, to return to New Zealand’s mainland.
It is a conservation story of hope and possibility. But with many of the sea lions’ former breeding grounds now populated by humans, scientists say that this time, New Zealanders will have to learn to share.
A study published Sunday in Methods in Ecology and Evolution suggests a new way to do that — combining algorithmic modeling that predicts where species will settle with on-the-ground information from those who regularly encounter the wildlife.
“One way it will help is the public awareness and engagement and knowing which communities to target as the population expands,” said Laura Boren, a science adviser for the conservation agency. “We can get people ready for sea lions coming to their town.”
With no part of New Zealand located more than about 80 miles from the sea, and children learning the names of native trees and birds at school, Ms. Boren added that many New Zealanders are keenly interested in conservation — making them well-placed to adapt to sharing beaches and hikes with cheeky, curious sea lions.
Some human encounters have been whimsical — one animal prompted the closure of a saltwater swimming pool in the city of Dunedin, on the country’s South Island, when it lolled near the toddlers’ pool and had to be coaxed into leaving the complex through the electronic doors. But sea lions have occasionally been deliberately killed, or hit by cars. A monthlong road closure to protect a mother and her pup in January, also in Dunedin, provoked some frustration among locals.
Sea lions are not aggressive, but the largest males can grow as heavy as cows. Their sheer bulk, as well as their noisy grunts when startled, can be intimidating.
The new model for predicting suitable habitats showed that integrating sea lions back into New Zealand will require some creativity. Veronica Frans, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student in quantitative ecology at Michigan State University, found 395 sites identified as suitable habitats for New Zealand sea lions using algorithm-based modeling. But when the study’s additional data from sources like rangers and scientists was factored in, the suitability of 90 percent of the locations was called into question because of human impact, such as roads and fences.
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