The Media & Public Perceptions of Wolves
This article is part of our ongoing series Wolves in Colorado: Science & Stories, a special five-part virtual presentation of the Institute for Science & Policy and Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, in partnership with the Center for Collaborative Conservation, the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, CSU Extension, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Watch the full recording of the session and explore the episode archive.
In the second episode of our ongoing series about wolf reintroduction in Colorado, the Institute’s Senior Policy Advisor Kristan Uhlenbrock and Center for Collaborative Conservation Director John Sanderson chatted with Sam Brasch, a reporter at Colorado Public Radio, and Rebecca Niemiec, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at Colorado State University about public attitudes and commonly held misconceptions.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Watch the full recording of the session.
Public attitudes toward wolves throughout the US are generally pretty positive
REBECCA NIEMIEC: A 2014 study found that 61% of respondents have positive attitudes toward wolves, but also found that the support really varies by stakeholder group and by geography. Ranchers, hunters, and people living in areas with wolves tend to have more negative attitudes towards conservation than people living outside of those areas. Here in Colorado, there have been a few different studies that have looked at public perspectives towards wolves. There was one in 1994, that was done as a mail survey of over 1000 residents. There was one in 2001 that was done as a phone survey. And there's one done more recently that I helped lead, an online survey. What those studies find is that in general, the Coloradan population is pretty supportive of wolf reintroduction.
In the 2001 survey, about 65% of residents said they would vote for wolf reintroduction. In 1994, it was 71%, and in our most recent survey, about 80% of residents said they would vote for reintroduction. And we did find that support was pretty consistent across geographies and across stakeholder groups. And we did find that actually in both 1994 and in our survey, the majority of people from the Western Slope and the Front Range supported wolves. But I also wanted to mention that there are some folks who are deeply opposed to wolf reintroduction. So, just keep in mind, as I talk about how there's high levels of support, it doesn't mean that that we shouldn't consider and seek to address those concerns of those who will be most negatively impacted by wolves.
The overlapping dynamics of reintroduction and the natural return of wolves
SAM BRASCH: I believe it was late last year, in December, that the state of Colorado confirmed that the people campaigning to reintroduce wolves had in fact collected enough signatures to get what is now Proposition 114 onto the ballot. The very next day, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced that a pack was living in the state of Colorado. At that point, they hadn't confirmed it. They confirmed it later in February. But it has been this weird cross-section of people voting on whether to reintroduce an endangered species for the first time ever and wolves also showing up in the state at the very same time, which creates all sorts of questions about, okay, what's actually going on here? Are they coming back on their own? Do we actually need to reintroduce them?
So my coverage has been driven both by trying to inform voters about what they want to do in terms of reintroducing wolves or not, but also keeping track of this pack and what's happening to it because that is an important aspect of this. News on that pack been sort of trickling out this whole year. First, we noticed that there were six wolves living in northwest Colorado. More recently I heard news that they might have had puppies, which has not been confirmed. And then even more recently, we've gotten reports that as many of three of those wolves might have been killed in Wyoming. Again, that is not been completely confirmed yet, and I want to be really careful about stating that, but this whole saga of the single pack has been a really interesting layer that's gone on top of this whole sort of more conventional question of whether or not to reintroduce wolves on the ground.
Answering the question of ‘why wolves?’
RN: In our most recent survey, we included some open ended questions which were basically: how do you think wolves will impact you personally, positively or negatively. I'll start with the negatives here, and people gave a diversity of different responses. Interestingly, the most common response in terms of being concerned about wolves was actually about human safety, the idea of packs wandering into residential areas and having to worry. There was also concern about people's pets, and wolves potentially attacking. There were the concerns I discussed about livestock depredation as well as concerns about wolves reducing populations of deer and elk, alongside concerns about reducing hunting opportunities. And then more broadly, there were some concerns about the fact that management of wolves will be difficult, and making a compensation program work will be difficult.
On the positive side, the most common argument that people gave for supporting wolf restoration was the ability for wolves to restore balance to ecosystems or improve the environment in some way. Beyond that, a lot of people talked about opportunities to view wolves in the wild. They were really excited about being able to go out and view wolves, an increase in potential tourism opportunities that people discussed. People also discussed what we call cultural or emotional connections to wolves. There’s also what we call ‘existence value,’ which is a concept often use used in economics to describe environmental value. That's this idea that it makes me feel positive to know that there are wolves out there, even if I never will see them, and it makes me feel good to know that wolves will be there for future generations.
The other argument given was perceived moral obligation. And so this was the idea that restoring wolves is the right thing to do, and also this idea the wolves deserve to live on the landscape. So I think what we can see here is both on the negative and positive side, we have a really wide diversity of different perceptions, both in favor and against wolf restoration.
A new paradigm for wildlife management
SB: What's been really interesting is how much people's opinions about wolves really has to do with who gets control over wildlife. This whole ballot question is absolutely about how you feel about wolves, but it's also about power. Traditionally in the United States, big decisions about wildlife have been made by bureaucrats and scientists, people who assess the situation, come to some sort of decision through meetings and reports, and then do something about it.
This is really different, and that's inspired a lot of calls of “ballot box biology” from people who oppose this initiative like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, like former members of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, like State Representative Perry Will who represents the district where wolves are living now in Colorado. They see this as an attack on their authority over wildlife and they're worried about what sort of precedent this might set if people are literally voting to make the big decisions about wildlife and then telling bureaucrats what to do and scientists what to do, rather than scientists and bureaucrats compiling information from the public.
That's a very different model, and some of the people who support this initiative completely understand that and think it's exactly what should be happening. I think about a few people I interviewed for this first article I did about this way back in the spring. Larry Weiss, a longtime wolf advocate, lives in Denver, and he sees this as absolutely an opportunity to completely change the game about who decides what happens to animals on the natural landscape in the United States.
RN: This ballot initiative is really a question over values, and whose values are considered in decision making. It is just as much of a value based decision and a decision about power, as Sam was saying, as it is a decision about biology. Ecologists have found that wolves can thrive on this landscape. They've identified both positive and negative impacts from wolves. Some positive impacts, but probably not as positive as some people would hope. Some negative impacts, but probably not as negative as some people fear.
So it really comes down to this question: as a society, do we want wolves, and are the benefits worth the cost? Each person, including wildlife biologists can look at that same question and come up with a different conclusion. I think it's important to keep in mind that all wildlife management decisions and goals are inherently value judgments and so they incorporate social, political, economic and scientific factors
Domination vs. mutualist views on wildlife
RN: Some of my colleagues have been researching people's values towards wildlife in the U.S. over time, and what they’ve found is there's two main types of values. There are people who have what they call domination values ─ basically people who believe that wildlife is there to be managed for human use. Hunting, fishing, generally consumptive use. And then we have people with more mutualist values, which emphasize how humans and wildlife are meant to coexist. They believe that wildlife deserves rights similar to rights of humans.
What my colleagues have found is that essentially when our wildlife agencies were set up, most people had those domination values. This is still reflected in the way our state agencies are structured and function to this day. Most agencies continue to rely on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses for funding which are activities that are that are really kind of those domination value activities. But modernization has led to a cultural shift among the general public and towards more mutualism values or combination values. That shift might be because people are living more and more in urban areas. So they're no longer living off the land, they no longer see wildlife as a threat they have to manage and instead it’s something that they can just go to and see and enjoy.
But while this cultural shift has been happening, our state wildlife agencies haven’t really been keeping up. Research finds that a lot of state agencies still mostly rely on domination values towards wildlife. A lot of people working there have those values.
So this is all the sociocultural setup for the ballot initiative. Essentially what we’re seeing is those with more mutualist values saying ‘Hey, we're an increasingly larger portion of the population. We want our values to be heard. We feel like this is the only way to do.’ But then of course folks with more domination values or traditional values are saying ‘Hey, but this leaves us behind - what about our values?’ So I think that contentiousness can really be understood as a product of these changing values over time and whose values are considered in decisions.
On the urban-rural divide in Colorado and differing stakeholder views
RN: It's not quite the rural- urban divide, because we actually found that the majority of Western Slope residents would still vote for reintroduction. But we do find that support is still highest in urban areas. Surveys are not the perfect predictor of how people will actually behave. They have some error associated with them. But we find that that urban support is a little bit higher than rural support. Generally, the majority of people still support wolf reintroduction, although the numbers change when you start looking across stakeholder groups.
We do find that support is lower among people who strongly identify as hunters than people who don’t. Support starts to drop when they're among that stakeholder group. But what's interesting is in both the phone survey and in the online survey, we find that the majority of hunters still support reintroduction, which I find it really interesting because we do have a lot of hunting groups that have formally come out against reintroduction quite adamantly. So that's an interesting dichotomy.
On covering the controversy as a reporter
SB: There's a weird way in which that narrative is a self-fulfilling prophecy…39 of 64 counties in Colorado county commissioners in Colorado have said they are against wolf reintroduction and a lot of the people on those commissions that I've spoken to ─ especially up in Moffat county which is again where the wolves are now ─ absolutely see this issue this way. They absolutely see it as these big city people showing up, putting something on the land that I don't want here, it's going to screw things up, there's going to be less hunting tags, there are going to be attacks on my cows. That is very much what they see, and those people are really passionate about this issue to those county commissioners.
So I think when it comes to trying to sort through the nuance of this, it's always really important for me to touch back to the scientists. That's kind of been home base for me because a lot of this stuff, you get into everything from rumors to misinformation or just straight up passion. People feel a lot of ways about wolves, and scientists tend to have a good perspective that helps you kind of step back and say, okay, what's really going on here? How do people actually feel? I really appreciate being able to pick up the phone and call people who study this for a living.
I think I have the same set of tools that anybody would have. I can read studies and I can ask people questions and then I can ask them to support their views. Having a very low level of knowledge about biology ─ I was a history major ─ is actually really great because I have to really force people to make a really strong case. But I've also found within the scientific community, or at least among the scientists who I've been calling and talking to pretty regularly about all this, they tend to agree about the big questions.
One big question is: can wolves colonize Colorado on their own, can they migrate from Yellowstone, and create a viable population here> I haven't found a scientist who says ‘yeah that's likely, that's probably going to happen.’ Maybe I just haven't talked to that person yet maybe there's a study out there I haven't read, but on questions like that, I've actually found scientists are pretty good at being able to manage different perspectives and tell me okay, here is some level of consensus that we've been able to reach and here's where we disagree. So I tend to include the part that they say is consensus.
On trust and common ground
RN: Social science research shows that trust is one of the strongest drivers of peoples’ acceptance or opposition to various natural resources. And that can be trust in the agencies who are the implementers or trusting the other stakeholder groups who they're engaging with or opposing.
I think about the breakdown in trust that led to some of this social conflict over wolves and why this issue is so contentious. Back in February, our group at CSU helped run a two day stakeholder workshop focused on bringing 31 key stakeholders ─ hunters, ranchers, environmentalists, animal rights advocates, folks from state agencies, as well as sovereign Native American nations ─ together in a dialogue. One of the things that really came out of that is that conflict is not just driven by different attitudes and beliefs towards wolves, but also by these deeper unresolved debates about natural resource management issues and this idea that people's trust in the other stakeholder groups have been broken. People are feeling like they're not heard.
On the complicated role of language
SB: [Regarding the wolves in northwestern Colorado], one of the things I had to contend with immediately was that there was a while where they didn't even have genetic tests, so we didn't even know if these were related wolves. I didn't know what to call them. “Group” was the most neutral thing I can think of. Eventually, Colorado Parks and Wildlife did do DNA sampling and tests on some scat they found and I think four of these wolves are siblings. But they still don't know if the other two wolves are the mating pair. So even now, it's like, what do I say? Pack? Probable pack? Family?
These are all tricky issues for me as a reporter trying to describe this accurately…The word “pack” is how we refer to a group of wolves, and it means a certain set of things. At the same time, that word has been loaded with all kinds of incorrect scientific notions…it's trying to convey accuracy, but you're also immediately conveying values, and I think a lot about “predator,” “carnivore,” “animal.” Those are all really tricky words to use and I try to use them in the correct context, I also get into hiccups. I'm going to use “animal” three times in a sentence. It's tough, but I think at the end of the day, what matters is accurately describing what's happening. That should be the judge by how you use language and that's how I try to figure out which word is right at the right time.
RN: Language plays a huge role, and one of the things I study is what's called framing effects, or how you can give the same information in a different way and that can greatly influence how people perceive this issue. And I do think that there's a misperception on both sides of the issue. One of them is this idea of balance of nature. There's a lot of research that suggests that we probably won't see wolves completely transform Colorado's ecosystem or somehow turn Colorado into this whole new kind of balanced ecosystem. There’s a lot of scientific uncertainty around what happened in Yellowstone and how much that'll apply to Colorado.
And then on the other side, we have this phrase “ballot box biology” that's often used, which is also problematic for several reasons. The first one is that wildlife management is equally about values and whose values are considered in decision making and who has power. This is a phrase that's used to take values out of it and pretend like that wildlife management is all just about biologists. People talk about how we should listen to trained wildlife biologists and that CPW has already spoken out against reintroduction. And that's not necessarily accurate as well. The professional CPW wildlife biologists haven't really spoken in any official capacity to our knowledge, and neither the commission nor CPW has taken an official stance on the ballot initiative.
The 2004 Wolf Working Group intentionally did not consider the topic of reintroduction, only natural migration, so they didn't speak to this issue. And the CPW commission did pass a resolution in 2016 against reintroduction, but there were no wildlife biologists or scientists in the commission. They're really just political appointees. So it was also a political decision, not just a scientific decision. These are examples on both sides of where we're using these phrases that are not necessarily rooted in truth.
Public attitudes might be different if wolves repopulate Colorado naturally
SB: Both sides of this debate try to appeal to what's natural, like Becky mentioned. Restoring the balance: you put wolves back, you return the ecosystem to what it was prior to European colonization and everything gets back in order. That's an appeal to some sort of natural order that doesn't exist right now.
On the other side I've talked to ranchers like Jay Fletcher who works outside of Steamboat, and he's actually a huge environmentalist. He maintains his land for the benefit of elk, deer, and all kinds of other animals. He feels great about wolves migrating to Colorado on their own because he thinks that is a normal pattern of things, but gets really nervous about reintroduction because he worries about the politics of where are you going to put the wolves, how are you going to do that, who's going to make those sorts of decisions? All of a sudden, it's not something you're responding to, it's something you're actively doing. His perspective is that we shouldn't do that just because it's potentially harmful to specific people. And it'd be better just to wait to see if wolves show up on their own and deal with that if it happens. It'll give the wolves more time to adapt, it'll give the people more time to adapt.
I don't know, to be totally honest, if we're talking about who we trust. I don't know if that's a talking point or how people legitimately feel. I talked to a lot of people who are very invested in this issue and I have heard that the wolf opposition groups have polled on this and they have found that saying wolves are already on their way to Colorado is the most effective tactic to weaken people’s support for reintroduction. So, I don't know. I think it's a complicated thing. I think that if you are actively reintroducing wolves, that's a decision, and decisions are inherently political.
RN: I can't speak to how much of an impact that has on public opinion, but it's a great study and I wish I had done that already. That'd be a great thing to look at. But I will say, I do think there's a difference, because of what the ballot initiative symbolizes that you wouldn't get into with natural recolonization. That kind of leads back to what I was saying earlier, where the ballot initiative is an example of what's bubbling up from this broader socio-cultural context of people's values changing. They want agencies to consider those diverse values or they're trying to be heard, but they feel like the only way to be heard is through this ballot initiative. And then the ballot initiative feels like an attack on those folks who will have to deal with the negative impacts. So I think that's why it's so contentious, because it's really a symptom of an issue of not incorporating diverse values and shared decision-making.
SB: And people are saying [in the chat] that wolves are going to colonize Colorado on their own. I'm not saying that that's necessarily going to happen. Like I said, scientists are pretty much in agreement that it's very, very unlikely they would create a self-sustaining viable population just through making their way through Wyoming into Colorado. This is just a political question. Would it be more politically palatable to people if they do, if wolves just made their way into Colorado? Yeah, probably.
Incorporating different stakeholder views pays dividends
RN: Social science research suggests that it's really, really important to run participatory processes for decision making in which you bring diverse stakeholders together into the room to help make management decisions alongside wildlife biologists. Things like public comment periods are typically not sufficient at addressing value-based debates and can actually escalate social conflicts, rather than reduce social conflict. That's because people come to the meeting, they yell at each other, and then the meeting ends and then you're kind of left with ‘okay, what do we do now?’
Instead, there's been a growing body of research saying that it is possible to get people into the room, to get the hunters, to get ranchers, to get environmentalists, to get animal rights advocates, to get sovereign Native American nations together with state wildlife employees and engage in a process where you actually truly get to understand the values and point of views of the other side and their perspective of where they're coming from. And one of the things that we found in our stakeholder workshop is that it really came down to basic human needs. There were folks at the workshop who were like, I didn't even realize that that group on the other side wasn't trying to obliterate my profession. They're just trying to achieve their own values and we have different values, but we all have the same needs, and we can respect those needs. And so I think there was a really hopeful pathway forward here where we choose to bring folks together.
SB: There is no guarantee, even if the ballot initiative passes, that wolves will actually be reintroduced because it becomes then a process, the sort of thing that Becky was talking about. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has to convene stakeholders to figure out a plan and figure out where the wolves are going to go. They'll be under a legal mandate to do that by the end of 2023, but this is statutory - the legislature could step in and change it. The deliberative politics that we're talking about are not ending with this vote in November, they're only getting going. So I think it's really important for people to understand that and also to pay attention to Colorado Parks and Wildlife to how they go about enacting or not enacting this mandate from voters and how lawmakers respond. This is just the beginning of a really big political discussion.
The role of financial compensation for lost livestock
RN: One of the takeaways from our stakeholder meeting was that compensation is often insufficient. And there was a lot of discussion about the indirect effects of wolves on livestock, such as increasing livestock stress. Compensation can be a real challenge, to have to go through that bureaucratic process. And it also doesn't address those deeper drivers of social conflict that I was talking about, those feelings of ‘hey, my values are not being heard.’ I think we'll need something more than that to make sure that ranchers actually have a real say in decision making about how we deal with depredation. The research on this is quite mixed and there's no strong kind of evidence across multiple studies that compensation does increase tolerance towards wolves and other carnivores.
SB: I recently produced a debate on this issue on Prop 114 and one of the participants was Robbie LeValley, who's a county administrator and a rancher in Hotchkiss. She expressed a lot of what Becky is talking about as well when it comes to compensation programs and some of the problems in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho…What she said is, there's a lot of issues around if a wolf kills my animal, what sort of proof do I need? Do I need to be taking pictures, how do I prove this out, do I need to do a bunch of paperwork in order to get this money?
And the other thing that I thought was really interesting about her points on this was that she feels like people aren't really sensitive to the fact that she actually has an emotional connection to her livestock. That the idea of a wolf chasing down a calf and pulling it apart is really upsetting to her. I think a lot of people who think about this issue and are in favor of wolf reintroduction see that as kind of ridiculous because eventually the cows are gonna die so we can eat them. There just seemed to be such an interesting disconnect there between her saying ‘no, this is important. I don't want them to die in this way, I don't like thinking about my livestock, getting killed by wolves in this terrible painful way.’
This is something I would love to write about someday. If you go into anti-wolf Facebook groups, the number of pictures of cattle, elk, different animals that have been killed by wolves is incredible. It's gruesome and shocking. And there's a lot of really interesting things to say about the emotional connections these people have with their animals because that isn't really addressed by a compensation program.
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