With wolf management back in the news in Idaho, we asked Bruskotter to provide some national perspective on the long process of reintroduction and delisting that is still underway, focusing on popular opinion in Idaho and in the rest of the country and the psychological factors behind management. — Eds.
TBR Blog is a space for commentary, opinion and reports on research in progress.
Wolf management in the United States is contentious — and it seems especially so in Idaho. One need only read the comments section following any news story about wolves to learn how much opponents and advocates differ on wolf management policy. On one side are people who oppose lethal harvest of wolves; on the other are those who oppose any restrictions on hunting and trapping. Yet, while there is little question that debate about wolves is polarized, less is known regarding how widespread these conflicting attitudes are, how Idaho residents’ attitudes compare with the rest of the nation or how people come to hold these attitudes. Empirical data on these topics is sparse, but enough exists for us to begin to address some of the questions people raise regarding wolves and wolf management policy.
ATTITUDES TOWARD WOLVES IN IDAHO AND BEYOND
Research on attitudes toward wolves in the northern Rockies emerged in the late 1980s, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered whether to restore wolves to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. A 1987 study that assessed attitudes toward wolves and their restoration across the Northern Rockies found that more than half of Idaho residents exhibited positive attitudes toward wolves (53 percent positive, 12 percent negative) and wolf reintroduction (57 percent supported, 27 percent opposed). Attitudes toward wolf reintroduction were slightly more favorable among Idaho residents than those expressed by residents of adjacent Wyoming (49 percent supported, 35 percent opposed) and Montana (44 percent supported, 40 percent opposed).
This result mirrors the findings of a national study conducted a few years prior that found that 50 percent of residents of the Rocky Mountains expressed positive attitudes toward wolves, while 30 percent disliked wolves. However, in contrast with widespread public perception, the same study also found that attitudes toward wolves were more positive among residents of Rocky Mountain states (50 percent) than the country in general (42 percent).
These studies indicate that wolves were controversial and attitudes polarized before the reintroduction began. So what about now? Just how polarized is the wolf issue? A 2007 survey of 421 Idaho, Montana and Wyoming residents living within wolf range found that one in four non-hunters opposed all hunting of wolves, while roughly one in six opposed any limitations on the hunting of wolves. Among hunters, one in 15 opposed all hunting of wolves, while more than half (55 percent) opposed any restrictions on wolf hunts. Such polarization creates problems for wildlife managers.
Under prevailing legal doctrine, states claim ownership of wildlife on behalf of their citizens and are supposed to manage wildlife populations for all of their citizens. How is the state to implement acceptable wolf management policy when there is such disagreement about what policies are acceptable?
HAVE ATTITUDES TOWARD WOLVES CHANGED?
There is little data to directly address the question of whether/how attitudes in Idaho have changed, as researchers failed to replicate study questions and methods from prior studies. Researchers who have examined attitude change regarding wolves in the U.S. have come to mixed conclusions. A meta-analysis of studies conducted through 2000 concluded that attitudes toward wolves had remained relatively stable and (slightly) positive. For a summary of survey data on wolves from 1972-2000, see Williams, et al, in Wildlife Society Bulletin 30(2). That study found that, across the U.S. West roughly 57 percent of people were positive towards wolves or wolf reintroduction. Likewise, a study of Utahans that I helped conduct found attitudes were consistent over a roughly 10-year time period (from 1994-2003); that study found 70 to 74 percent of Utah residents expressed positive attitudes toward wolves. Moreover, attitudes in Utah were stable among both urban and rural residents as well as hunters.
This finding is not universal, however. Research from Sweden indicates that hunters’ attitudes toward wolves became more negative after roughly a quarter century of living with wolves. Similarly, research from Wisconsin found that people who resided in wolf range became more negative toward wolves over a 5 to 8 year time period. While the bulk of the existing data suggest that attitudes toward wolves have remained stable across recent decades, they also suggest that the attitudes of those people living among wolves and those who feel they are negatively impacted by wolves (e.g., hunters) can become more negative.
WHAT DETERMINES TOLERANCE FOR WOLVES?
Theory and research on risk perception provides a convenient lens through which to interpret research on attitudes toward wolves. Research on a variety of hazards indicates that perceptions of risks and benefits associated with hazards tend to drive acceptance of hazards. See work by Michael Siegrist, a psychologist with the Western Institute for Social Research at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Thus, people who perceive high risks (or costs) associated with wolves and low benefits would be expected to show little tolerance for the species. While this research suggests that people make such decisions through a kind of rational, cost-benefit analysis, the weighing of risk/cost and benefit is not equal — that is, perceptions of benefits tend to have a greater influence on the acceptability of a hazard than perceptions of risk/cost.
A recent study I co-authored that investigated acceptance (or tolerance) of wolves found exactly this — people’s intentions to take actions for and against wolf recovery were largely explained by the benefits — not the risks associated with those species. K. M. Slagle, J. T. Bruskotter, R. S. Wilson, The Role of Affect in Public Support and Opposition to Wolf Management. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 17, 44 (2012). As the perceived benefits associated with wolves increased, people expressed a greater willingness to take supportive action; as they decreased, people showed a greater willingness to take intolerant actions.
But does this represent a “rational” weighing of the evidence? The data suggests not. Perceptions of both risks and benefits associated with wolves were strongly associated with one’s emotional reaction toward wolves; as people reacted more negatively, perceptions of benefits decreased and perceptions of risks increased (and vice-versa). And interestingly, this relationship held true whether one opposed wolves or supported them. Thus, while the data supports the notion that wolf supporters (to paraphrase) “base their judgments on emotion,” the same holds for wolf opponents.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH WOLF MANAGEMENT IN IDAHO?
Recently, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) Director Virgil Moore observed that the department’s decision to kill two packs of wolves in the Frank Church wilderness was “more a philosophical and social issue” as opposed to a biological issue. I would agree with that statement with just a slight amendment: The question of how to manage wolves is philosophical (insomuch as there is no objectively “correct” answer), but how one answers the question has both social and biological implications.
On the social side, how we choose to manage wolves is an expression of the value we associate with this species. The IDFG’s aggressive approach to wolf management, paired with consistent disparaging rhetoric from state politicians, suggests that those with authority over wildlife do not value wolves in the least. These actions call into question Idaho’s intentions regarding wolves and their commitment to long-term conservation of the species, as I argued recently in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.
Collectively, their actions appear designed to appease the most vocal opponents of wolves. While this may be a good short-term strategy for politicians, it comes with a substantial long-term risk — specifically, the potential of alienating “non-consumptive” wildlife stakeholders (i.e., those who do not hunt or fish, but are passionate about conservation). Long-term trends suggest participation in hunting is declining, while participation in non-consumptive activities, such as birding, is exploding. It is likely that long-term conservation of our wildlife resources will require the concerted efforts of both hunting and non-hunting conservationists (whom agencies are desperately courting), yet Idaho’s aggressive pursuit of lethal wolf management is likely to keep these interests apart, and could sow distrust for decades to come.
On the biological side, research has demonstrated a myriad of beneficial ecological impacts associated with the presence of top carnivores, including wolves (see especially research by William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta at Oregon State University’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society). Their recent review article suggests that the very industries often thought to be hurt by the presence of large carnivores, can be positively impacted as well:
“Large carnivores help reduce disease prevalence in ungulate prey populations, thereby mitigating agricultural costs because of spillover effects on domestic livestock… counter intuitively, large carnivores may also provide crucial services for the very industry they are perceived to be at most in conflict with: pastoralism. By limiting the density of wild herbivores and promoting productivity, large carnivores may enable pastoral activities that are sustainable…” — W.J. Ripple, et al., “Status and Ecological Effects of the World’s Largest Carnivores,” Science 343 (January 10, 2014).
This brings us back around to the idea of benefits, and in particular, how the ecological effects of large carnivores are perceived by different individuals. To ecologists and many supporters of wolves, the effects associated with large carnivores amount to important ecological benefits that are not monetized in any existing industry. But to some hunters, the idea that elected officials should allow predators to limit the number of elk and deer is tantamount to treason; any limitation on ungulate hunting opportunity is perceived as a cost. Correction (1/23/14): An earlier version of this post misidentified Virgil Moore. He is the director of IDFG.
These differences in perception help explain why wolf management — including the current issue regarding shooting wolves in the wilderness — is so controversial. Elk hunting opportunities in Idaho abound, and those benefits are accrued by hunters across the state and beyond. But accruing the ecological “benefits” associated with wolves will require people to allow them to reach densities where they can provide that function. Idaho’s approach to wolf management sends a message that such benefits are unwelcome — even in a federally-designated wilderness.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.