Wildlife Conservation Science & Policy

Dedicated to the social and political aspects–the so-called "human dimensions"–of wildlife management

Is interest in wolves waning?

Recently I’ve had several conversations with colleagues about how the news media portrays large carnivores–especially wolves.  Some people are concerned that the editorial rule “if it bleeds, it leads” is being applied with reckless abandon, which may lead to increased perceptions of risk, and in turn, lower tolerance for wolves. Our recent study did find some support for the notion that wolves were being portrayed more negatively in the news media.  Specifically, Houston et al. (2010) found that the content of news articles about wolves become increasingly negative over a 10-year time period (1999-2008).  We also found that the majority (>70%) of the ~30,000 paragraphs we coded portrayed wolves negatively.

Meanwhile, Mech (link) recently accused scientists and the media of the opposite–i.e., disproportionate coverage of the positive or “beneficial” aspects of wolves:

But what explains the rash of recent research purporting to show beneficial effects of wolves…wolf advocates eagerly seize on any study they consider favorable to wolves. The media become complicit by immediately publicizing such studies (Table 1) because of the controversial nature of the wolf. And all this publicity reverberates on the internet. Seldom, however, do studies contradicting the sensational early results receive similar publicity” (Mech 2012, p. 146).

I questioned this assertion in a recent post on The Wildlife News and in a letter to be published in Biological Conservation, largely relying on Houston et al. as evidence.  Anyway, these interactions got me thinking about a lingering question I’ve had– is the level of controversy surrounding wolves changing?  A number of conservation/wildlife advocacy groups strongly opposed wolves’ removal from federal protections, and several of these groups have been vocal opponents of regulated wolf hunting and trapping.  So are wolves becoming more controversial, or is the heated rhetoric restricted to those vocal interest groups that strongly support or oppose wolves?  One way to begin to address this question is to examine the internet search volume on the topic of wolves.  If wolves are becoming more controversial, we should expect the volume of searchers about wolves to increase; if the controversy is subsiding, we should expect it to decrease.  To address the question I used Google Trends, a tool for examining the content of web searches over time.  I examined two types of searchers, a general search about wolves or wolf facts, and a search targeting wolf hunting and trapping.  The following terms were used in these searchers:

  1. General searches about wolves: “wolf facts”+”gray wolf facts”+”grey wolf”+”the gray wolf”+”canis lupus”+”gray wolf”+”gray wolves”
  2. Searchers about wolf hunting and trapping: “wolf harvest”+”wolf hunt”+”wolf hunting”+”hunting of wolves”+”hunting wolves”+”wolf hunting season”+”wolf trapping”+”trapping wolves”+”trap wolves”+”wolf trapping season”

I also explored a variety of other terms (e.g., “wolf delisting”, “wolves and trophic cascade”) to get a general idea of what terms people were searching.  Figure 1 shows the volume of general searcher about wolves from January 2004 – January 2013.  Note, information is provided on a monthly basis, and the data show strong seasonality, with peaks occurring in April and May, and low points in July and August.  Nevertheless, a substantial decrease in volume over this 10 year time frame is clearly visible.  Importantly, Google Trend does not provide information on the absolute number of searchers, but rather, the number of searches relative to the peak in any given time period.  Thus, the most recent peak (in May of 2012) shows just 70% of the search volume that occurred in the  month of highest volume (i.e., May of 2004).

fig1

These data could be interpreted as showing decreased public interest in wolves, which would suggest wolves are becoming less controversial.  However, it could be that the terms used for searching changed over time, which could account for the apparent decrease.  Figure 2 shows the states from which searches originated.  While all states are represented, you can see that the Rocky Mountain states are darkest (indicating higher search volume in these states).  Interestingly, these data suggest that wolves are controversial within the Rockies, which conflicts with the idea often expressed by wolf opponents that they are being forced to live with wolves because of the desires of people from outside the Rockies (New York City seems to be a favorite target).  Yet search volume in New York State was just 23% of volume in Montana.

fig2    To account for the possibility that search terms changed over time, I focused on the alleged controversy surrounding wolf harvest–i.e., hunting and trapping.  Figure 3 shows the results of this search.  You can clearly see sharp peaks that correspond to the start of hunting seasons in 2008, 2009 and 2012.  While there is not a linear increase in search volume, it is clear that volume of harvest-related searches has increased following the delisting.  These data could be indicative of a change in the nature of the issue; that is, a new focus on wolf hunting and trapping.  However, recall that these data are relative, to see if increases in harvest-related searches offset the decreases in general searches we need to examine these search trends on the same scale.

fig3

(Note: Figure 4 shows harvest-related searches across the US states.  Again, these searches largely are coming out of states that have wolf populations.  New York and California each had 3% of the volume of searchers initiated from Montana.  Again, these data suggest the most intense interest about wolves coming out of states with wolf populations.  The wolf issue appears to be “local”–i.e., not of national interest.)

fig4

Figure 5  places general general searches about wolves and harvest-related searches on the same scale.  Here we can see that harvest-related searches account for a relatively small portion of searches overall.  At their highest peak (September, 2009) harvest-related searches are less than 1/4 of the peak in general searches.  When the two search types are combined, the total search volume in the peak month of 2012 is roughly 3/4s (76%) of what the general search volume was in May of 2004 and April of 2005.  Thus, wolf-related searches appear to be declining generally, even when one accounts for the increases in harvest-related searches in recent years.  These data suggest that public interest in the wolf issue may be waning.  Still, it is important to note that these data are very course measures of controversy.  Pursuit of aggressive wolf reduction and control programs could catalyze opposition and receive intense media coverage, which may re-ignite the wolf controversy.  Perhaps, most interesting are the maps that indicate searches for wolves are largely coming out of states with wolves, which suggests despite lots of national attention, the issue of how to conserve and manage wolves is largely a local issue.

fig5

P.S. I also attempted to examine searches that targeted “wolf benefits” or “trophic cascades” and wolves.  Google Trend gave me the following message: “Not enough search volume to show graphs.”

Literature Cited

Houston, M., Bruskotter, J.T. & Fan, D., 2010. Attitudes Toward Wolves in the United States and Canada: A Content Analysis of the Print News Media, 1999–2008. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 15(5), 389-403.

Mech, L.D., 2012. Is science in danger of sanctifying the wolf? Biol. Conserv. 150, 143-149.

Update: New Reports Added

Disagreement over the Public Trust Doctrine’s application to Wolves

This past September my colleagues (S.A. Enzler & A. Treves) and I published an article arguing that the public trust doctrine could provide a legal means to force protection of wolves were state policies found lacking (Bruskotter et al., 30 Sept. 2011, p. 1828).  This article prompted two recent replies published by Science last month from L. David Mech and David Johns (17 Feb. 2012, p. 794).  Contrary to our assertion, Mech contended that “state governments have not shown ‘hostility toward wolves’”.  He defended this statement noting that “teams of highly qualified scientists set wolf recovery criteria” and state management plans pledged to maintain wolf populations at or above 150% of recovery goals.  Further, Mech argued that monitoring by the FWS ensured that “the wolf can be relisted anytime if necessary”. 

Our response. We took exception with Mech’s claim that state governments have not shown hostility toward wolves, noting, for example, that Idaho’s state legislature has consistently taken legislative actions with the intent of removing wolves from the state, and pointing to similar legislation in Wyoming and Utah.  We further pointed out that Mech’s confidence in states was predicated on wolf management plans that were developed by state agencies, who merely perform ministerial, management duties under the direction of the legislative and executive branches.  We also disagreed with Mech’s claim that wolves could be relisted at any time by the FWS, given Congress’s willingness to remove wolves via legislative rider and the fact the the ESA’s monitoring period was limited to 5 years.  Finally, we felt that Mech misinterpreted our argument, which empowers wildlife managers to act on behalf of wildlife by reminding states that they have a common law obligation to conserve wildlife for the benefit of current and future generations. 

In contrast to Mech, Johns found our analysis of the delisting decision to be inadequate, and took exception with the idea (implied in our title) that “moving the issue from federal to state courts will remove politics from decisions about wolves.”  Johns argued that while litigation was an important tool, “extensive grassroots organizing in support of the cause being litigated” is essential to ensuring court decisions are not “undermined or nullified.”  He lamented NGOs abandonment of grassroots organizing and activism in favor of litigation.

Our response. We felt that the delisting decision was adequately covered by other scholars and, more importantly, an analysis of the 2009 Final Rule was made moot when Congress used a legislative rider to delist wolves.  We agreed with Johns’ point about state courts susceptibility to political influences, but noted that because judges are constrained by precedent, court proceedings provided a “less political avenue” for ensuring the long-term conservation of wolves.  We also agreed with Johns’ claim that grassroots mobilization is an important element in species protection, but noted that “research also suggests that the power of litigation to affect policy is enhanced when it is used as a political resource by social movement organizations in conjunction with ‘grassroots mobilization’”.

You can read the original article and replies here.

Wolves as a Public Trust Resource

On 30 September my colleagues and I published an article in the journal Science that argues that the wildlife trust doctrine (a branch of the broader public trust doctrine) may provide a legal means for interested citizens to compel states to conserve wolves (or, for that matter, other controversial, imperiled species). What follows is a brief discussion of some of the major points presented in the paper (Bruskotter, J. T., S. A. Enzler, and A. Treves. 2011. Rescuing Wolves from Politics: Wildlife as a Public Trust Resource. Science 333:1828-1829).  We begin with a brief primer on the wildlife trust doctrine.

A Primer on the Wildlife Trust

The wildlife trust doctrine–a branch of the broader public trust doctrine that deals specifically with wildlife–was established in a series of court cases that provide the foundation for state-based conservation of wildlife that some refer to as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation/Management. Two Supreme Court cases (i.e., Martin v. Waddell 41 U.S. 367 (1842) and Geer v. Connecticut 161 U.S. 519 (1896)), provide the basic foundation of this legal doctrine.  In Martin v. Waddell, the court applied English common law to reject a landowner’s claim to an oyster fishery that was located under the public waters of the state of New Jersey.  The court concluded that with the formation of the United States, the lands that had once belonged to England passed to the state of New Jersey; applying English common law, the court held that the “land under navigable waters…were to be held…in the same manner and for the same purposes that the navigable waters of England and the soils under them are held by the Crown.”  English policy, since the time of the Magna Carta, was to preserve such resources “for the benefit of the public”.   Thus, the landowner could not lay claim to the oyster fishery because his actions deprived the citizens of New Jersey any access to this resource, which was held collectively by the citizens of that state.

Although the dispute in Martin v. Waddell focused on the lands under the navigable waters and the oyster beds attached thereto, the Court in Geer v. Connecticut, using a similar rational, extended the trust obligation to terrestrial wildlife (woodcock, ruffled grouse and quail).  In this case, again relying on English common law, the court held that wildlife (ferae naturae ) were public property – “the ownership of the sovereign authority . . .  [to be held in] trust for all the people of the state” and that it was the” duty of the legislature to enact such laws as will best preserve the subject of the trust and secure its beneficial use in the future to the people of the state.”  These cases set the stage for modern wildlife management by state agencies, in which states act as trustees, managing and conserving wildlife resources on behalf of their citizens.  This doctrine underpins our system of wildlife conservation in the United States, and is recognized by the Wildlife Society as one of the seven “pillars” of the North American Model.

An Obligation to Conserve?

While the notion of sovereign ownership of wildlife is well established, there has been little discussion regarding states’ obligations under the wildlife trust doctrine.  The Court in Geer made it clear that the trustee-beneficiary relationship establishes an obligation on the part of the state to “to enact such laws as will best preserve the subject of the trust” (emphasis added). The court added that:

“..the power or control lodged in the state, resulting from this common ownership, is to be exercised, like all other powers of government as a trust for the benefit of the people, and not as a prerogative for the advantage of the government as distinct from the people, or for the benefit of private individuals as distinguished from the public good” (emphasis added).

Yet, the nature of states’ obligations is ill-defined for, as Freyfogle and Goble (2009:33) noted, “there is no trust document that sets forth the precise terms of the trust.”  Moreover, there has been little opportunity–or need–to establish the case law necessary to “flesh out” these obligations because the statutory protections provided by the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the associated federal control have largely precluded the need for protecting species outside the ESA framework; that is, because the ESA provides federal protections for species that are imperiled, there has been no need for interested citizens to force states to protect species through litigation, thus establishing the case law necessary to formalize states’ obligations.

Wolves and the Wildlife Trust

Enter the wolf.  Since wolves were reintroduced in the northern Rocky Mountains in the mid-1990s, western politicians have been crying “foul”.  Their actions have ranged from hyperbolas saber-rattling, to the passage of laws that seriously undermine (or at least attempt to undermine) wolves’ conservation at the state level.  Here are but a few of the more egregious examples:

  • House Joint Memorial 5 (Idaho): Made it the official policy of Idaho that wolves be removed from the state by any means necessary.
  • House Bill no. 274 (Idaho): Among other things, this bill prohibited state and local government employees from “investigating, arresting or prosecuting, or assisting any federal authorities or agencies in any way that could lead to the arrest of any person who removes a gray wolf from Idaho or causes the injury or death of a gray wolf in Idaho” so long as the species was listed as threatened or endangered.
  • House Bill no. 343 (Idaho): Declared the wolf introduction to be a “disaster”, arguing that the “state’s citizens, businesses, hunting, tourism and agricultural industries, private property and wildlife, are immediately and continuously threatened and harmed by the sustained presence and growing population of Canadian gray wolves in the state of Idaho.”
  • Idaho Rhetoric: Governor Otter declares that he would support a plan to kill all but 100 wolves.
  • Senate Bill no. 36 (Utah): Made it the official policy of Utah to prevent “the establishment of a viable pack of wolves within the areas of the state where the wolf is not listed as endangered or threatened.”
  • Utah Rhetoric (2011): The Director of the Dept. of Natural Resources called wolves “a biological weapon” that were being used by anti-hunters to end sport hunting, and compared the recovery of wolves in the West to a resurrection of the T. Rex.

These actions have seriously undermined states’ credibility when it comes to wildlife conservation, and call into question states’ intentions concerning the long-term conservation of wolves.  These actions also raise a few important questions, such as: What are states obligations with respect to wolves under the wildlife trust doctrine?  Do interested citizens have any legal recourse if states act in such a way that threatens the persistence of wolves within their borders?

Musiker and colleagues (1995) argued that the public trust doctrine imposes an obligation for states to “(1) consider the potential adverse impact [on the wildlife resource] of any proposed activity over which it has administrative authority, (2) allow only activities that do not substantially impair the state’s wildlife resource and (3) continually monitor the impacts…to ensure preservation of the corpus of the trust.” We concur with their view–the trustee-beneficiary relationship implied by the wildlife trust doctrine imposes upon states an obligation to “prevent substantial impairment” to wolves’ (or any other trust asset) absent a compelling government purpose. Moreover, the public/wildlife trust doctrine does not allow states to privilege certain interests when making decisions.  Indeed, in Geer the court held that the state must exercise its power over wildlife “for the benefit of the people, and not …for the advantage of the government as distinct from the people or for the benefit of private individuals” (emphasis added). Thus, actions taken on the part of states that potentially impair a population to the benefit of certain private groups should be viewed with skepticism.

How Does the Wildlife Trust Doctrine Affect Wolf Management

In essence, the recognition of an enforceable obligation under the wildlife trust doctrine would fill the gap in statutory law that arises when ESA protections are lifted and states’ resume management of a species.  Such an obligation would provide a means by which citizens could use the courts to ensure that populations are not impaired without due cause.  For wolves, the wildlife trust doctrine seemingly demands that, at minimum, states maintain (or at least attempt to maintain) a viable population of the species, as any less would bring into question states’ ability to conserve the species for future generations. Were this obligation to be officially recognized by states it could help tone down the rhetoric about wolves, and assuage the fears of wolf advocates that state-led management will lead to a second round of eradications.  It could also help bring the debate about wolves in the West back into the scientific arena, as states set about determining what constitutes a viable population of wolves.

Interestingly, the recognition of a formal obligation to conserve could also be useful for removing species from the federal list of endangered species.  For example, a federal court in Montana recently ruled that grizzly bears could not be removed from the endangered species list because the regulatory mechanisms present were inadequate for ensuring grizzly bears’ continued conservation.  Specifically, the Court held that Memorandum’s of Understanding between the states and the federal government were an inadequate regulatory mechanisms because the government “cannot compel any of the agencies to live up to their commitments” under the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (see, Greater Yellowstone Coalition v. Servheen, 672 F. Supp. 2d 1105, 1116 (D. Mont., 2009).).   A formal recognition of an obligation to conserve under the wildlife trust doctrine could have provided the reassurance (i.e., regulatory mechanism) that the Court sought and allowed the delisting of grizzly bears to proceed.

Yet, despite widespread recognition among legal scholars, the case law necessary for establishing an obligation to conserve wildlife under the wildlife trust doctrine is lacking.  Indeed, as we noted in the piece–states application of this doctrine has thus far been extremely limited.  Building the case law necessary for judicial recognition of an obligation under the wildlife trust doctrine will require interested groups to use the courts when states act in such a way as to potentially impair species.  Such application is crucial to ensuring the long-term conservation of controversial species.

See also, my post on The Wildlife News: Conserving Carnivores Under State Management: Wolves as a Public Trust Resource

Press Release about the Article: Researchers: Apply Public Trust Doctrine to ‘Rescue’ Wildlife from Politics

Press Release from the University of Minnesota: Public Trust Doctrine Applies to State Conservation of Wolves

References (from the original article)

J. W. Feldman, Human-Wildlife Conflicts 1, 12 (2007).

L. D. Mech, L. Boitani, Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003).

B. J. Bergstrom, S. Vignieri, S. R. Shefield, W. Sechrest, A. A. Carlson, BioScience 59, 991 (2009).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service et al., “Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery 2010 Interagency Annual Report” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Ecological Services, 2011).

C. Carroll, M. K. Phillips, C. A. Lopez-Gonzalez, N. H. Schumaker, BioScience 56, 25 (2006).

J. T. Bruskotter, E. Toman, S. A. Enzler, R. H. Schmidt, BioScience 60, 941 (2010).

R. Gehrke, “Natural Resources director compares wolf to ‘T. rex’,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 08 February 2011 2011.

A. Treves, K. A. Martin, Society and Natural resources 24, 984 (2011).

M. J. Houston, J. T. Bruskotter, D. P. Fan, Human Dimensions of Wildlife 15, 389 (2010).

M. C. Wood, Environmental Law 34, 605 (2004).

D. G. Musiker, T. France, L. A. Hallenbeck, Public Land & Resources Law Review 16, 87 (1995).

P. Redmond, Natural Resources Journal 49, 249 (2009).

Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892).

S. A. Enzler, William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review 35, 413 (2011).

16.  Geer v. Connecticut, 161 U.S. 519, 534 (1896).

B. Hudson, Columbia Journal of Environmental Law 34. 99 (2009).

J. L. Sax, Michigan Law Review 68, 471 (1970).

National Audubon v. Superior Court of Alpine County, 658 P. 2d 709, 719 (Cal. 1983) 724.

H. M. Babcock, South Carolina Law Review 61.  393 (2009).

M. C. Blumm, L. Ritchie Environmental Law 35, 673 (2005).

Greater Yellowstone Coalition v. Servheen, 672 F. Supp. 2d 1105, 1116 (D. Mont., 2009).

C. A. Jacobson, J. F. Organ, D. J. Decker, G. R. Batcheller, L. Carpenter, Journal of Wildlife Management 74, 203 (2010).

Center for Biological Diversity v. FLP Group, 166 Cal. App. 4th 1349, 83 Cal. Rptr. 3d 588 (2008).


http://www1.umn.edu/news/news-releases/2011/UR_CONTENT_358268.html

Social Conflict over Wolves: The Predator Pendulum Revisited

In April of 2011, in an unprecedented event, the U.S. Congress summarily removed a species (gray wolves; Canis lupus) from Endangered Species Act Protections.  The method with which Congress chose to act–by attaching a legislative Rider to a “must pass” federal budget–has drawn considerable criticism from conservation advocates, including the Executive Director of the Wildlife Society, Michael Hutchins (Cohn 2011).  This act also initiated a fierce debate about the role of hunting and other forms of lethal management in wolf conservation under state-directed management.  Importantly, some of the same people who opposed legislative delisting ultimately support the hunting of wolves.  Thus, Hutchins, for example, vehemently defended hunters and the hunting of wolves, while at the same time expressing frustration about Congress’ actions on the Wildlife Society’s blog:

“I hate the fact that Congress intervened in the ESA with regard to wolf management.  Management and conservation should be in the hands of scientists and professional managers and not in the hands of politicians. But why did this happen? Precisely because extreme animal rights proponents (and some extreme environmentalists)–unwilling to acknowledge that wolves have indeed recovered, pushed things too far, arguing for no control what-so-ever.”

Hutchins’ comments reminded me of a paper, published a decade earlier, that characterized public policy concerning predators as swinging on a pendulum between overharvest and overprotection (Messmer et al. 2001).  With the delisting of wolves, perhaps the pendulum was swinging again? In what follows I discuss three sources of confusion and conflict regarding wolves: (1) the role of science in wildlife management, (2) ambiguity regarding states’ intentions as a result of ambiguous terminology and conflicting communications, and (3) the structure and objectives of wolf hunting and trapping seasons.  These three factors underlie much of the debate about wolves and wolf management in the West and are likely to be continued sources of conflict in the future.  They also represent opportunities to arrest the swinging pendulum of predator policy and bring about a state of equilibrium where wolf policy and management is concerned.

Confusion at the crux: Science, policy and wildlife management

The interplay between science and policy and how it affects the objectives of wolf management lies near the heart of the wolf issue.  Scientifically-collected and analyzed data has traditionally played an essential role in wildlife management in the United States.  Time-tested methods are used to assist wildlife managers in understanding population trends and the factors (e.g. immigration, mortality, birth rates) that can potentially impact wildlife populations.  This tradition has been symbolically codified as one of seven “components” or principles of the so-called North American Model of Wildlife Management (see also Organ & Mahoney 2007).  It has also led to the wide-spread perception that wildlife management objectives should be determined by science rather than politics.  Thus Malloney (2011:179) recently expressed frustration that “wolf management…tends to be guided by opinion and politics rather than science.” This perception misunderstands the role of science in wildlife policy; in fact, it misunderstands what types of questions science is capable of answering.  Science can answering factual or “is” questions–bounded, of course, by some error.   Science, cannot answer questions regarding what should be.  Such questions are fundamentally subjective in nature.  Consequently, while science is well equipped to address questions such as, how many wolves will remain if a certain percentage of that population is removed, it cannot answer questions such as, how many wolves are acceptable; likewise, science cannot determine what constitutes recovery under the ESA–these questions are fundamentally subjective or “normative”  in nature (see Vucetich et al. 2006).

The fallacy–that science should determine wildlife policy–is further exacerbated by language contained in the ESA, which calls for listing decisions to be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”  This phrase has led to the oft-repeated idea that “listing decisions should be based upon the best available science”.  But basing listing decisions solely on science simply is not possible.  Thus, while my colleagues and I recently found fault with the FWS’s analysis of the threats posed to wolves in the Northern Rockies, we ultimately concluded:

“Our finding of fault with the FWS’s analysis of threats should not be interpreted as a condemnation of the agency’s conclusions…determining the status of endangered species requires agencies to answer two fundamental questions: (1) What is the risk of extinction to a species? and (2) is this risk acceptable? We recognize that such determinations will always contain a high degree of subjectivity that reflects not only agencies’ confidence in evaluating risks, but more importantly, the normative nature of judgments regarding the acceptability of these risks…” (Bruskotter et al. 2010).

According to the Wildlife Society, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation demands that  “science is the proper tool for the discharge of wildlife policy” (Batcheller et al. 2010, TWS position statement).  Here the use of the word “discharge”, which Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines as “to throw off or deliver a load, charge, or burden” further contributes to the confusion regarding the role of science.  Science simply is not capable of “discharging” (or “delivering”) wildlife policy (or any other policy, for that matter); to set such high expectations for science is to set it, and scientists, up for failure.  Rather, science merely informs policy decisions, which, as the term “policy” implies, are ultimately discharged via political processes.  Some may think this distinction trivial, but it is a fundamental source of conflict where wolves are concerned. Until stakeholders–including wildlife professionals–recognize the limitations of science and the types of information it provides, the role of science will be a continued source of friction and conflict.

Ambiguity in terminology: Gray areas abound, even where gray wolves are scarce

Unfortunately, the role of science in wildlife management is not the only source of confusion where gray wolves are concerned.  In communications about wolves, terms like “sustainable”, “recovered”, “biological recovered”, and “viable” are bandied about by people who seem certain that wolf populations either fit, or do not fit, these descriptions.  Yet such terms are extremely ambiguous, and their definitions are not always agreed upon by scientists.  For example, the terms “recovered” and “biologically recovered” have gained recent use to describe wolf populations.  Yet the Endangered Species Act does not define the term “recovery/recovered”; rather, the ESA specifies that agencies (i.e., NMFS or FWS) provide minimum criteria that, when surpassed, prompt review to see if a change in a species listing status is warranted (See Carroll et al. 2006, Enzler & Bruskotter 2009).

Sustainability. Similarly, the term “sustainable” (or the phrase “not sustainable”) has been consistently used by both advocates and opponents of delisting to describe wolf populations, state management goals, and state management plans.  Yet the term, “sustainability” is at least the equal of “recovered” in terms of its ambiguity.  A recent paper in the journal Sustainability, noted that the term was coined in the field of forestry, “where [sustainable] means never harvesting more than what the forest yields in new growth” (Kuhlman & Farrington, 2010).  Under this definition of sustainability, Creel and Rotella (2010) correctly concluded that their meta-analysis indicated that sustainable harvest levels for wolves were “lower than the current Northern Rocky Mountain management plans suggest”–a statement that caused significant friction between Dr. Creel and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.  The conflict resulted because Creel’s conclusions conflicted with the message being sent by politicians and management agencies in the West, who argued that their wolf management was sustainable (example).

The term “sustainability”, however, has changed over time.  Today, it is often seen as comprised of social, economic and ecological/environmental dimensions (Kulman & Farrington, 2010).  Unfortunately, this newer version of the term only serves to increase ambiguity–it suggests that, to determine if something is sustainable, one must establish and satisfy some set of social, economic and ecological criteria.  To my knowledge no such criteria exist where wolves are concerned.  Thus, advocates of delisting and wolf advocates continue to use the term to support or condemn state management without having ever agreed on what “sustainable” actually means.  Of course, the dictionary definition of sustainable differs markedly from the way scientists use the term (i.e., capable of being supported or upheld), which, to be fair to state agencies, is likely how they were using the term.

Biological Recovery. When the FWS attempted to delist wolves in 2009, another phrase emerged to describe the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population–biologically recovered.  Thus, in the 2009 Final Rule (p. 15,138), the FWS confidently asserted that, “By all measures the NRM wolf population is extremely demographically and genetically diverse, will remain so, and is completely biologically recovered” (emphasis added).  This language was quickly picked up in subsequent press releases and FAQ sheets.  Thus, in a recent FAQ sheet entitled, Gray Wolf Recovery and Delisting Questions and Answers, the FWS again emphasized its view that, “The best science strongly supports the Service‟s conclusion that the NRM population is biologically recovered” (emphasis added).

This new phrase--biologically recovered--seems to have been coined specifically for wolves.  Although a search of the phrase in Google returned 2,450 results, a cursory look revealed the first 95 results referred explicitly to wolves in the Great Lakes or Northern Rockies (the only non-related article referred to people who had recovered from anorexia). The term “biologically recovered” is curious, as it implies that recovery of an endangered species may entail more than simply meeting minimum biological standards and accordingly, that non-biological criteria may be considered when establishing recovery objectives for an Endangered Species–an intriguing notion, and one that seems to conform with the purpose of the ESA (the ESA recognized one purpose in protecting species was that the “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people”).  However, it is more likely that the FWS merely meant to assert that all of the criteria established for wolf recovery–which were all biological in nature–had been met.  (Note: Some argued that genetic connectivity was an issue at the time; however, shortly thereafter (in 2010) with the publication of vonHoldt and colleague’s finding that there was an exchange of genetic material between sub-populations in the Northern Rockies, it became clear that the final criteria for recovery (i.e., genetic exchange between sub-populations) had been met; see vonHoldt et al. 2010).

 Yet, while many now are comfortable with the notion that wolf populations in the Northern Rockies have met the criteria set up for wolf recovery, there remains considerable ambiguity as to whether wolf populations in the Northern Rockies will remain “recovered” once state management plans are implemented.  Both Idaho and Montana have made it clear that they will attempt to use regulated public hunting and other forms of lethal management to significantly reduce wolf populations; moreover, Wyoming (now set to delist as well) has stubbornly clung to the nuisance/pest classification for wolves in >80% of the state–meaning wolves can be killed by any legal means at any time in these areas.  In Idaho, the actions of politicians continue to cast doubt on the state’s intentions.  For example, in 2009 the governor of Idaho announced that he favored a plan that would kill all but 100 of Idaho’s wolves; in April of 2011, Idaho’s legislature passed and governor signed into law, HO 343, which declared a state of emergency as a result of wolves and holds that Idaho’s citizens  “are immediately and continuously threatened and harmed by the sustained presence and growing population of Canadian gray wolves”; Idaho has also repeatedly passed legislation such as House Joint Memorial 5, which called on the FWS to immediately remove all wolves from Idaho by any means necessary.  Perhaps more concerning are the statements made by Idaho commissioner Tony McDermott, that raise questions about his commitment to maintaining wolves.  When pressed by Idaho Senator Siddoway over wolf management,  McDermott noted that the commission had resisted more aggressive management for fear of a pending federal court decision:

“The reason that Idaho Fish and Game has been cautious in wolf depredation and hunting limits, McDermott said, was to ensure that the state maintains control over wolf management. A federal judge will issue a ruling in a few months that could potential put wolves back on the federal endangered species list…” (Idaho Reporter).

Now that state-led wolf management is all but assured, wolf advocates wonder whether McDermott will fulfill his promise to open “the [wolf management] toolbox a little wider” (again see Idaho Reporter). In the same article, McDermott also reportedly said that Idaho’s population (in 2010) was 2-3 times as large as it should be (according the the FWS, the estimated minimum fall population in Idaho in 2010 was 705; see FWS 2010 Report), suggesting that, at minimum, Idaho will attempt to cut its wolf population in half.  Idaho Fish and Game has chosen not to set harvest quotas on wolves in the majority of the state, which, unfortunately, serves to further fuel suspicion concerning Idaho’s intentions in the eyes of wolf advocates.

Taken together, the actions of state politicians and Fish and Game agencies in the West cast considerable doubt on western states’ intentions regarding wolves, and raise a number of questions regarding the future of wolf populations (e.g., If states implement aggressive wolf reduction programs, will wolf populations remain “recovered” (as defined by the wolf Recovery Plan)? Will genetic exchange continue if states are successful in reducing wolf populations? Can management seemingly designed to reduce wolf populations to the legal minimum be defined as “sustainable” or “responsible” as managers contend? Will Idaho and Montana follow Wyoming in classifying wolves as nuisance/pest species once the ESA’s mandatory 5-year monitoring period is done?)  The ambiguity surrounding states’ intentions is yet another important source of conflict with wolves are concerned, and it has fueled at least some of the scientific skepticism over whether wolves will remain recovered under state management (see, for example, Bergstrom et al. 2009, Bruskotter et al. 2010, Creel & Rotella 2010).

Hunting, trapping and other forms of lethal wolf management

The means by and conditions under which wolves will be lethally managed is the issue with the greatest potential to cause social conflict around wolves.  Long before wolves were removed from ESA protections Nie (2002:68) warned that “the hunting and trapping of wolves is “perhaps the most divisive and potentially explosive issue in the entire wolf debate.” Indeed the experience of wolf and grizzly management in Alaska highlights the potential for conflict surrounding lethal management.  Various efforts at lethal management of wolves in Alaska have spawned ballot initiatives, lawsuits, tourism boycotts, and legislative actions.  (Note: Defenders of Wildlife has a history of Alaska’s management of wolves, here). The previous actions and rhetoric of state politicians and wildlife policy-making bodies (noted above), invite similar actions in western states–especially in Idaho and Wyoming.

In a short opinion piece published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, Mech (2010) recently provided recommendations to agencies for making wolf hunts more palatable to non-hunters.  These recommendations included, delaying the start of hunting seasons until after pups are nearly adult-sized (i.e., November), closing seasons before gravid females become obvious (i.e., by March), and more generally, regulations “to maximize taking wolves where they conflict most with human interest and where and when public concern about wolf taking is least” (Mech 2010:1423).  Mech (2010:1423) also goes on to recommend that states “consider establishing restricted zones” around areas sensitive to the public (e.g., Yellowstone National Park).  (Similarly, some wolf advocates have pushed for “wolf-viewing” areas where wolves are protected from regulated public hunting and trapping.) Mech’s recommendations regarding season length have been implemented (in part) in Montana (see Montana’s Wolf Hunting Guide); however, Idaho’s season runs from 30 August to 31 March (see Idaho’s Wolf Hunting Season).  Wyoming, it appears, has ignored these recommendations entirely, as wolves would be classified as a nuisance/pest species in more than 80% of the state–meaning that they could be killed by essentially any means at any time (Note: A caveat–Wyoming will protect wolves in a small portion of the state during the time of year when most wolves disperse.  This provision is designed to ensure that some genetic exchange with other populations continues; see a draft of Wyoming’s Plan).

Social science research on the management of large carnivores generally indicates that the acceptability of lethal management increases with the severity of perceived impacts (see Arthur 1981, Zinn et al. 2000, Whittaker et al. 2006, Decker et al. 2006, Don Carlos et al. 2009). For example, Decker and colleagues (2006) found that support for the lethal control of wolves among Alaskans ranged from 30−64% based upon the extent of the severity of impact of wolves on caribou and moose populations.  However, studies also indicate that most people generally find non-lethal management actions more acceptable and human than lethal forms of control (Arthur 1981, Bruskotter et al. 2009, Reiter et al. 1999).  I do NOT mean to suggest that lethal wolf management, especially regulated public hunting, will not be acceptable to residents of western states; rather, that state agencies can potentially reduce the controversy associated with lethal management by being more selective regarding when and where it is implemented (again see Mech 2010).  Research suggests that in general most people support lethal management; however, they want it to be undertaken to address what they perceive of as legitimate impacts (Treves and Bruskotter 2011), and they will be more accepting when the actions being implemented are “scaled” relative to these impacts see (Decker et al. 2006, Riley et al. 2003). In general, these studies suggest using hunting selectively–that is, where problems with livestock depredations have been chronic, where impacts to wild ungulates are able to be quantified, or where there may be a concern regarding public safety (i.e., in the case of a wolf that has become food-conditioned).  I hasten to add that the use of non-lethal means (especially encouraging improvement in animal husbandry among livestock producers) has the potential to both reduce conflicts (Musiani et al. 2005) and–potentially–make lethal control more palatable to the public.  That is, if management agencies can show that they have attempted to promote “coexistence” with non-lethal means, the public is likely to prove more willing to accept lethal management (see Treves 2009).  Perhaps more importantly, making a concerted effort at coexistence will show the non-hunting public that state fish and game agencies are not just concerned with the desires of hunters, and could help to reduce or even prevent some of the types of social conflict that arose in response to aggressive management in Alaska.

Looking at the big picture

Arguments over the role of science and the sustainability of wolf management are likely to continue (especially if wildlife professionals cannot clearly articulate what they mean when they use these terms).  But these are mere skirmishes that define how the wolf issue is framed.  Pursuit of aggressive, lethal management which does not consider the extent of wolf impacts, methods of wolf harvest, or more generally, the desires of non-hunters risks alienating non-hunting conservationists and [gasp!] environmentalists, who should be seen as partners in wildlife conservation, not as foes; such actions also risk alienating many of the very people wildlife agencies are trying desperately to recruit in the face of lagging participation in hunting and fishing–that is, people who already care about wildlife and the environment.  Messmer and colleagues (2001) warned that predator control polices, fueled by value-laden debates that transcended the issues in question, tended to swing on a pendulum whereby predators were over-harvested and then over-protected.  Similarly, in his presentation last year at the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference, Dave Mech warned of a scenario that unfolded in Poland, whereby wolf populations apparently went through three separate cycles of over-protection, followed by near eradication.  Could the same thing happen here?  I don’t think so…and yet, the political and legal processes in our country set up win-lose scenarios; and the politics of wolves ostensibly demand that winners are rewarded and losers are punished.  Advocates for wolves have been winners for a long time. Now that the tide has turned and wolves have been delisted, it seems these advocates (now on the losing side) will be punished.   The fundamental problem–one that few seem to grasp–is that sans federal protections, state wildlife agencies are now supposed to be the “grown up” in the room; they are responsible for wolf management, and they will be blamed if things go awry.  By adopting aggressive management plans that call for halving wolf populations, treating wolves as nuisance/pest species, and ignoring calls for coexistence these agencies could lose the trust of a generation of conservation-minded, environmentally-active citizens.  What can we expect?  According to Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore, “The pendulum has swung. We are taking a harder look at predators” (Idaho Statesman).

Wildlife professionals in the West, as the arbiters of wildlife policy–the “grown up” in the room, have an opportunity to slow the predator policy pendulum, helping policy reach a state of equilibrium and decreasing the conflict surrounding wolves’ management; or they can swing the pendulum as it passes by, and invite boycotts, ballot initiatives, and more legislative interventions. Many of the things that wolf advocates desire in a management plan could be put into place without much of an impact on overall wolf harvest or other wildlife management objectives (e.g., dedicated viewing areas, protection of high-profile packs around national parks, 24 hour trap checks, protections puppies and obviously gravid females, etc.).  But too many of my colleagues view such compromises as capitulation to the enemy–anti-hunters.  They fail to realize that by taking the “hard line” with wolves, by choosing to keep the pendulum in motion, agencies invite its return (and play into the hands of the very people they fear).  Perhaps more importantly, they may turn a lot of people off from hunting in the process–sowing distrust of wildlife management and resentment against the hunting community.  Right now in the US there is widespread support for regulated public hunting (see Duda) despite the fact that only a small percentage of the US population engages in this activity; yet, there is also widespread public support for wolves–and their continued listing under the ESA (see a recent Harris Interactive Poll).  Hunting–even the hunting of wolves–need not be pitted against wolf conservation, <b>these are not mutually exclusive endeavors.</b> There is ample middle ground to implement wolf hunting in such a way as to show non-hunting conservationists and those concerned with animal welfare (NOT animal rights) that their views are valued, and by so doing, potentially silence the criticisms that have plagued agencies (particularly in the West).  Of course, I’m not holding my breath.

Notes

On who is to blame for the delisting of wolves: The notion that the congressional delisting of wolves resulted from over-litigation by “extreme” proponents of wolves ignores a substantial and growing body of literature that has expressed considerable unease at state-led management of wolves and plans to use regulated public hunts as a means of managing wolf populations.  Specifically, scientists have: (a) questioned whether the limited successes reached in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies constitute “recovery” as defined by the ESA (Carroll et al 2006; see also Vucetich et al. 2006); (b) questioned whether wolves in the Northern Rockies are actually “biologically recovered” as the USFWS maintains (Bergstrom et al 2009); (c) questioned the validity of the data that form the basis of management decisions (in Montana, see Mallonee 2011), (d) argued that current management is not “based on” science (Bergstrom 2009, Mallonee 2011); (e) argued that the final rule that removed wolves in the Northern Rockies from ESA protections was predicated on a flawed analysis of the social and political threats to wolves (in the West) under state management  (Bruskotter et al. 2010); (f) shown that hunters in Wisconsin and the Northern Rockies are not likely to steward (i.e. support) wolf conservation (Treves & Martin 2011); and finally (g) shown that, in contrast to conventional thinking (which suggests wolf harvest is likely to be primarily compensatory), harvest of wolves can be “super additive” and argued that wolf harvest levels set by the state of Montana are unlikely to be sustainable (Creel & Rotella 2010). Clearly, there is some trepidation in the scientific community regarding state-led management of wolves.

Warning. By tradition, outside of national parks, state Fish and Game Agencies set harvest objectives and regulations for wildlife on federal public lands (where most wolves in the West reside). Agencies would do well to remember the last time that aggressive lethal management of “wildlife” on federal lands spilled over state borders and became a national issue.  I speak, of course, of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which resulted from well-meaning advocates of wild horses ,who objected to their federal public lands being managed to satisfy the interests of local ranchers and hunters, at the expense of their interest in preserving what they saw as a symbol of the West. States that pursue aggressive lethal management of wolves not only risk boycotts and ballot initiatives, they invite federal intervention in the form of legislative action from outside these states designed to protect wolves on federal lands.  I do not think any wildlife professionals want to revisit the ride with wild-horse Annie.

Literature Cited

Arthur, L. M. 1981. Coyote Control: The Public Response. Journal of Range Management 34:14-15.

Bergstrom, B. J., S. Vignieri, S. R. Shefield, W. Sechrest, and A. A. Carlson. 2009. The Northern Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf is Not Yet Recovered. BioScience 59:991-999.

Bruskotter, J. T., J. J. Vaske, and R. H. Schmidt. 2009. Social and Cognitive Correlates of Utah Residents’ Acceptance of the Lethal Control of Wolves. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 14:119-132.

Bruskotter, J. T., E. Toman, S. A. Enzler, and R. H. Schmidt. 2010. Are Gray Wolves Endangered in the Northern Rocky Mountains? A Role for Social Science in Endangered Species Listing Determinations. BioScience 60:941-948.

Carroll, C., M. K. Phillips, C. A. Lopez-Gonzalez, and N. H. Schumaker. 2006. Defining Recovery Goals and Strategies for Endangered Species: The Wolf as a Case Study. BioScience 56:25-37.

Cohn, J. P. Wildlife Groups Opposing Congressional Delisting of Gray Wolf. BioScience 61:648.

Creel, S., and J. J. Rotella. 2010. Meta-analysis of relationships between human offtake, total mortality and population dynamics of gray wolves (Canis lupus). PLos ONE 5(9):1-7 (e12918).

Decker, D. J., C. A. Jacobson, and T. L. Brown. 2006. Situation-Specific “Impact Dependency” as a Determinant of Management Acceptability: Insights From Wolf and Grizzly Bear Management in Alaska. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34:426-432.

Don Carlos, A., A. D. Bright, T. L. Teel, and J. J. Vaske. 2009. Human–Black Bear Conflict in Urban Areas: An Integrated Approach to Management Response Human Dimensions of Wildlife 14:174-184.

Enzler, S. A., and J. T. Bruskotter. 2009. Contested Definitions of Endangered Species: The Controversy Regarding How to Interpret the Phrase “A Significant Portion a Species’ Range”. Virginia Environmental Law Journal 27:1-65.

Kuhlman T., and J. Farrington. 2010. What is Sustainability?. Sustainability 2(11):3436-3448.

Mallonee, J. S. 2011. Hunting Wolves in Montana–Where is the Data? Nature and Science 9:175-182.

Mech, L. D. 2010. Considerations for Developing Wolf Harvesting Regulations in the Contiguous United States Journal of Wildlife Management 74:1421-1424.

Messmer, T. A., D. Reiter, and B. C. West. 2001. Enhancing wildlife sciences’ linkage to public policy: lessons from the predator-control pendulum. Wildlife Society Bulletin 29:1253-1259.

Musiani, M., T. Muhly, C. C. Gates, C. Callaghan, M. E. Smith, and E. Tosoni. 2005. Seasonality and Reoccurrence of Depredation and Wolf Control in Western North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin 33:876-887.

Nie, M. A. 2002. Wolf recovery and management as value-based political conflict. Ethics, Place & Environment 5:65-71.

Organ, J. and S. Mahoney. 2007. The Future of Public Trust: The legal status of the Public Trust Doctrine. John Organ and Shane Mahoney. The Wildlife Professional 1(2):18-22. Summer 2007.

Reiter, D., M. Brunson, and R. H. Schmidt. 1999. Public attitudes toward wildlife damage management and policy. Wildlife Society Bulletin 27:746-758.

Riley, S. J., W. F. Siemer, D. J. Decker, L. H. Carpenter, J. F. Organ, and L. T. Berchielli. 2003. Adaptive Impact Management: An Integrative Approach to Wildlife Management Human Dimensions of Wildlife 8:81-95.

Treves, A. 2009. Hunting for large carnivore conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology 46:1350-1356.

Treves, A., and J. T. Bruskotter. 2011. Gray Wolf Conservation at a Crossroads. BioScience 61:584-585.

Treves, A., and K. A. Martin. 2011. Hunters as stewards of wolves in Wisconsin and the Northern Rocky Mountains, USA. Society and Natural Resources, in press.

Vucetich, J. A., M. P. Nelson, and M. K. Phillips. 2006. The normative dimension and legal meaning of endangered and recovery in the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Conservation Biology 20:1383-1390.

Whittaker, D., J. J. Vaske, and M. J. Manfredo. 2006. Specificity and the Cognitive Hierarchy: Value Orientations and the Acceptability of Urban Wildlife Management Actions. Society & Natural Resources 19:515-530.

Wolf population growth stagnates…will the rhetoric?

The image (above) shows (a) wolf populations, (b) confirmed domestic animal depredations (including livestock), and (c) the number of wolves legally killed (i.e., either via legal hunting or control) in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming from 1987 to 2010.  These data were aggregated from the USFWS’s 2010 report, which you can find here.

Despite predictions of continued growth, these data show a leveling off in wolf populations in these three states in the most recent 4 years.  A closer examination reveals that while initially population growth was substantial, it has steadily decreased in recent years.  In the first 5 years post reintroduction (1996-2000), the average annual wolf population growth was 34%, in the next five years (2001-2005) it was 27%; in the most recent five years (2006-2010), it was just 11%; and in the last three years it was 3%.  This isn’t surprising given the fact that reintroduced wolves found unoccupied habitat full of elk that were unaccustomed to the predator.  However, as the habitat has filled in, population growth has slowed, despite the dire predictions of some.  Could wolves be reaching their carrying capacity in the Northern Rocky Mountains?  Who knows.  The more interesting question is: will the rhetoric of western politicians be toned down now with wolves delisted and populations stabilizing?

We need your help in a nationwide study!

Researchers at Ohio State University are conducting a study in order to understand people’s preferences regarding the conservation and management of large carnivores in the United States. In particular, we are interested in the preferences of people who are knowledgeable and/or care deeply about these issues.

The survey consists of questions designed to assess your attitudes and preferences concerning large carnivore conservation, endangered species restoration, and wolf  management. The questionnaire should take you about 10 to 15 minutes to complete.

This research is not affiliated with nor sponsored by any interest group or agency. Should you have any questions or comments about the study, please do not hesitate to contact us at the number listed below.  Note: Your participation is completely voluntary–you may choose to quit the survey at any time. We also want to assure you that your answers are confidential; we will not be able to link individual people to their responses.

Click here to participate in the study.
Thank you for your participation!

Jeremy Bruskotter, PhD

(614) 247-2118

For questions about your rights as a participant in this study or to discuss other study-related concerns or complaints with someone who is not part of the research team, you may contact Ms. Sandra Meadows in the Office of Responsible Research Practices at (800)678-6251.

Dave Mech on Wolves at the Midwest F&W Conference

Dr. L. David Mech was one of the plenary session speakers at the Midwest Fish & Wildlife Conference, held on 11 – 15 December in Minneapolis, MN.  Dr. Mech gave a thought-proving presentation on the science related to wolves, with a special focus on wolf effects on ungulates, scavengers, and the so-called “trophic cascade” in Yellowstone that has been attributed to the presence of wolves.

Mech reviewed the research on these subjects and essentially concluded that the science is far from settled.  He emphasized the tentative nature of these findings and noted that there was often conflicting evidence from competing labs.

One area where he felt the science was very robust concerned wolves’ tendency to kill weak and vulnerable animals with greater frequency then would be expected by chance.  He played a very interesting video from wildlife photographer Bob Landis that appeared to show wolves specifically targeting an elk with a visible limp (later confirmed to be arthetritis) after “testing” other animals in the herd.  He suggested this was the first really solid evidence that wolves’ disproportionate take of vulnerable animals was not just due to these animals’ vulnerability, but also a function of wolves’ behavior–that is, that wolves specifically target more vulnerable animals.  Folks that want to learn more can visit http://www.davemech.org.

Q & A

I was particularly interested in a couple of questions Mech fielded at the end of his presentation.  When asked how managers should respond to recent comments from northern Minnesotans that wolves “were decimating deer populations”, Mech quipped that they had been saying the same thing since he started studying wolves (back in the late 1950s).

Mech was also asked to predict the geographic extent of wolf recovery (i.e., where will wolves be 20 years from now).  He opined that wolves would continue to occupy some new territory in southern Wisconsin and Michigan and probably the Dakotas as well, but would probably never be able to survive in states like Illinois and Indiana.  He felt the Rocky Mountain population would do better, expressing confidence that wolves would make it into Utah and Colorado and even northern California.

Another questioner asked how hunting wolves was going to build tolerance for the species if, as Mech had maintained, hunting would have little effect on wolf populations.  Rather than address this directly, Mech pointed to Poland where he asserted that wolves had gone through three cycles of “overprotection” followed by wolf eradication, implying that the same could happen here in the U.S.  While I would concede Mech’s point, I would argue that, given the differences in our culture and system of government here in the U.S., one cannot assume that the same events will transpire–in fact, the science on the matter is certainly less clear than it is on any of the issues Mech had argued were far from settled. Personally, I happen to agree with Mech’s assessment that this is a legitimate risk; in fact, that was essentially the argument we made in a recent paper.  However, I think it is important to note that our collective understanding of the social and political systems that will decide whether similar events transpire here in the U.S. is no better than our understanding of trophic cascades–the science is far from settled.

Are wolves endangered in the northern Rockies?

Update Jan 2010 – Clarifying comments on Utah Public Radio (MP3 Audio)

In the December issue of BioScience, my colleagues and I use the US Fish & Wildlife Services 2009 decision to remove wolves in the northern Rockies from endangered species protections to illustrate how the social sciences can contribute meaningfully to listing determinations.  Essentially, this paper asserts that, when threats to a species are primarily anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) the Endangered Species Act’s mandate that listing decisions be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available” applies not just to biophysical sciences, but also relevant social science data.

In the 2009 Final Rule removing protections for wolves, the FWS asserted that attitudes toward wolves are a potential threat to the species.  We summarized their analysis of this threat as follows:

“(1) human attitudes are a potential threat to wolves because human-caused wolf mortality, driven by human attitudes, extirpated wolves from this region in the first place;

(2) the threat posed by human attitudes has lessened substantially because public attitudes have improved in recent decades;

(3) state management of wolves will foster local support of wolves and wolf recovery; and

(4) existing state regulatory mechanisms will “balance negative attitudes” and ensure recovery…” (p. 943).

We assert that numerous studies exist that can help with the evaluations of these assumptions, but these studies do not appear in the 2009 Final Rule.  In particular, existing social science evidence conflicts with arguments #2 and #3–we discuss this in detail in the BioScience article. However, it is important to point out that it was not our intent to affect the listing status of wolves.  In fact, the decision to relist wolves was made long ago.  Rather, our intent was to use the case of wolves in the northern Rockies to illustrate how social science information can contribute meaningfully to listing status determinations and provide a “roadmap” of some important considerations for future listing status determinations regarding wolves.

As to the question of whether wolves are endangered, we note that, ultimately, listing determinations require agencies to answer two important questions: what is the risk posed to a species, and is this risk acceptable?  While our analysis clearly suggests the risks posed by society are greater than FWS estimated, they cannot speak to the second question.  Thus, we leave it to readers to formulate their own views on the matter.

Bruskotter, J.T., Toman, E., Enzler, S.A., & Schmidt, R.H. 2010. Are gray wolves endangered in the northern Rocky Mountains? A role for social science in listing determinations. BioScience 60(11):941-947.

How does experience with wolves affect media coverage?

We used the dataset on news media coverage about wolves to explore the question of how a society’s experience with wolves affects news media coverage.  After classifying nearly 30,000  statements about wolves as either positive or negative, we grouped all of the statements we coded into one of three categories: (1) states and provinces with permanent wolf populations, (2) states with “new” wolf populations (i.e., populations established since the passage of the ESA either via reintroduction or recolonization), and (3) states and provinces without wolves.

The first figure (below) shows the trend in news coverage (specifically, negative expressions per article) over time in these three groups.  Results show no significant trend in negative expressions per article among states and provinces with permanent population nor among states and provinces without wolves.  States with new wolf populations, on the other hand, demonstrated a significant increase in negative expressions per article.  Moreover, states with new populations exhibited more negative expressions per article (second figure).  These results suggest the increase in negative news media coverage over time is being driven primarily by states with new wolf populations.

Explanations

In our original analysis, we hypothesized that states with new wolf populations would have more negative news media coverage due to the novelty associated with the return of this species and a heightened perception of risk on the part of the population.  However, an alternate explanation exists for these data.  All of the states and provinces with permanent wolf populations also have reduced protections for wolves (the only state with a permanent population that is protected under the ESA is Minnesota, and wolves there are listed as threatened).  Another explanation for our findings is that the negative press is related to the degree of control that states/citizens have over wolf populations; specifically, as control decreases under the ESA, perception of risk increases leading to more negative attitudes and media coverage.  A final explanation deals with differing cultures; anti-government sentiment in the Rocky Mountain West make wolves a perfect surrogate issue for those seeking to promote anti-federalism and states’ rights issues.  Unfortunately, they data we’ve collected thus far don’t allow us to explicitly address these issues.

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