Wildlife Conservation Science & Policy

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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.


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

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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.

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