Beliefs about wildlife management are changing
By Mary Guiden and Sherrie Whaley
Researchers at The Ohio State University recently joined forces with colleagues at Colorado State University to conduct a 50-state study on America’s Wildlife Values, the largest and first of its kind.
The study looked at the social context of wildlife management in the United States and sought to understand the growing conflict around wildlife management issues. It also describes individuals’ values toward wildlife across states and regions of the country, and how those values are changing.
“Tenets of social psychology suggest that our core fundamental beliefs, or values, help guide everyday thought and behavior,” said Alia Dietsch, one of the study’s co-investigators and an assistant professor in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). “Those values shape thought and behavior in relation to wildlife conservation, including support for endangered species protection and traditional management approaches such as lethal control.”
While most everyone can agree that abundant and healthy wildlife populations are a cultural and ecological treasure, the decisions about how government agencies manage wildlife have become highly contested. For example, how should managers handle human-wildlife conflict, endangered species restoration, and predator control?
The researchers with the study found large declines over time in several states for the group of people defined as traditionalists, or those who believe animals should be used for purposes that benefit humans, like hunting and medical research.Mutualists, on the other hand, believe that animals deserve the same rights as humans. They view animals as companions and part of their social networks, and project human traits onto animals.
“What’s surprising is that the decline in traditionalists in some states is happening at a really rapid pace,” said Michael Manfredo, a lead investigator and head of the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at Colorado State.
Researchers also surveyed fish and wildlife agency leaders and staff from 30 states for this project. While diversity continues to grow across the United States, the wildlife profession is dominated by white males: 91% of agency respondents identified as white, and 72% identified as male.
Fewer people believe animals exist for humans’ benefit
Findings from this project build on three sources of data: 2004 data on public values from the 19-state Wildlife Values in the West study, 2018 data on public values from a random sample of nearly 45,000 people in 50 states, and 2018 data on fish and wildlife agency culture from 30 states.
From 2004 to 2018, researchers found that, overall, Western states had a 5.7% decrease in traditionalists and a 4.7% increase in mutualists. But results varied considerably by state: California had a decline in traditionalists from 28% to 18%, while North Dakota stayed constant over the same timeframe.
Across the United States, traditionalists make up 28% of the population, and mutualists make up 35%. (Learn more about the four wildlife value orientation types at go.osu.edu/Cx9S.)
The 2018 survey on public values included questions on high-profile predator conflict issues, including lethal removal of coyotes, bears, and wolves in different scenarios.
On the question of whether coyotes that kill pets should be lethally removed, nearly 60% of residents in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Mississippi, and Alabama agreed, while only about 30% of residents in California, Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut thought the animal should be killed.
Modernization is driving changes in values
The research team said that the decline in the traditionalist group is occurring due to modernization, which is linked to people obtaining higher levels of income, moving to more urban areas, and achieving higher levels of education.
“As income, education, and urbanization increase, we see people adopting a more modernized lifestyle, resulting in less direct experience with wildlife,” explained Tara Teel, one of the lead investigators and a professor at CSU.
“People aren’t as likely to interact with wildlife in their day-to-day lives,” she added. “Instead, they learn about these animals in indirect ways, by seeing them on television or social media, where animals may be depicted as more human-like. This helps shape a new way of thinking about wildlife and wildlife-related issues.”
Manfredo said that these values are established at a very young age and are slow to change, which makes these findings so interesting. For so much of human history, values provided stability across generations. But the remarkable changes of the past century have produced a rapid cultural shift.
Intergenerational value change is also accompanied by changes in immigration rates across states.
“That’s likely what’s happening in some of the states that are showing change at a very high rate,” Manfredo said.
The research team found that when a traditionalist orientation is more common among people in a state, there is greater support for private property rights over protecting endangered fish and wildlife and prioritizing economic growth over environmental protection.
In Ohio, for example, there was an almost even breakdown of wildlife value orientations between traditionalists at 32% and mutualists at 34%. Traditionalists believe wildlife should be used and managed for human benefit, while mutualists believe wildlife are part of our social network and that we should live in harmony.
Traditionalist-heavy states also have greater proportions of hunters and anglers. The opposite is true for states with high numbers of mutualists.
Remaining value orientations in Ohio were pluralists at 23% and “distanced” at 12%. Pluralists prioritize wildlife values differently depending on the specific context, while those with a distanced value orientation often believe that wildlife-related issues are less relevant to them.
“Our work suggests that the value shift is due to changing societal conditions. Modernization forces, including the rapid pace of urbanization, are influencing the future of conservation,” said Ohio State’s Dietsch, who specializes in parks, protected areas, and natural resources management in the School of Environment and Natural Resources. “Culture (via one’s ancestry) and the groups to which we belong (social identity) also shape beliefs about the treatment of wildlife. To help wildlife conservation and management efforts remain relevant, it will be important to continue to monitor these changes into the future.”
Implications for wildlife managers
The study’s findings have implications for wildlife managers who want to engage more diverse state residents in conservation and management efforts. Results from the research show that 50% of Hispanic residents and 43% of Asians identified as mutualists, compared to 32% of Whites, and both groups have half as many traditionalists.
Hispanics and Asians are far less likely than Whites to have ever hunted or fished, according to study data.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2045, current minority populations will outnumber white, non-Hispanic populations.
As minority populations continue to grow, wildlife agencies will need to engage with them and work together on fish and wildlife management.
Ed Carter, president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said the study’s findings will help state agencies as they interact with traditional partners as well as with the rapidly changing demographics across a wide range of interests and organizations.
“State fish and wildlife agencies have conserved, restored, and sustainably managed many species of fish, wildlife, and habitats for hunting and fishing for well over 100 years,” he said.
While often associated with species pursued by anglers and hunters, the restoration success stories for imperiled species among wildlife agencies are wide-ranging, Carter noted.
“There is no single pathway to create broader relevancy for state fish and wildlife agencies. This study will help agencies identify and challenge internal assumptions about who ‘the public’ is and what ‘the public’ wants or believes.”
View the America’s Wildlife Values state report for Ohio at go.osu.edu/Cx8x.
The national study was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Multistate Conservation Grants program.
Editor’s note: Mary Guiden, who provided the bulk of this story's content, is science writer and senior public relations specialist at Colorado State University.