Beauty or the Beast: Understanding Attitudes about Wolves in Washington


Disclaimer: The content of this blog post is copied, edited, revised, and modified from my original Master’s Thesis and includes original research and data.  The complete document is published through the University of Oregon. 

I never had strong feelings about wolves growing up and, even though I am writing about them, I still do not.  They never appealed to me as a pristine alpha predator, they never struck fear into me, they simply never had much significance.  I find coyotes more ecologically interesting, I have always been more irrationally afraid of cougars and sharks, yet I have never understood what all the wolf fuss is about.  For whatever reason, wolves are a bizarre and fascinating lightning rod for both human ire and human admiration.  At various times, they have been “the appropriate symbol for greed or savagery, the exactly proper guise for the Devil, or fitting as a patron of warrior clans” (Lopez, 1978, p. 204).  This is what I like about wolves and what drew me to this research; wolves occupy a unique space in human psyche and it makes their management complex.  

Often when we consider environmental management, we make assumptions about the world.  There is something that exists outside of ourselves that we, as human beings, need to manage.  Not only do we need to manage it, we have the capacity and authority to manage it.  Regardless of whether human beings meddle in the affairs of Nature – a broad categorization that is not always useful and assumes a separateness between human beings and the ecological world – Nature will continue to operate.  It is possible that its operation will be halted, slowed, or altered by our behavior, but that does not mean it is not operating.  We seem to know this.  We spend a lot of time, energy, and resources developing environmental management plans which draw on scientific understanding of “healthy” environments to provide human beings with a standardized operating procedure.

In Washington state, the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) developed the Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan to help manage the Gray Wolf population that was and is naturally returning to the state.  Regardless of whether the WDFW developed this plan, wolves would have returned.  It is likely that their return would have been slowed, altered, or even eliminated, but it would have occurred.  Even with the development of the Plan, their return has been slowed and altered.  This is because the WDFW is not solely trying to manage Gray Wolves, it is trying to manage human behavioral responses to Gray Wolves.  When a Wolf kills a rancher’s livestock and the government provides financial support to the rancher, it is not to change the Wolf’s reaction to livestock, it is to prevent the rancher from slaughtering the Wolf in retaliation and to acknowledge the potential hardship the wolf has caused.  This is not to suggest there are no aspects of the Plan focused on managing wolf behavior, but most of these management techniques are deployed to assuage rancher concerns.  It is peculiar, then, that we do not spend more time considering human being behavioral management tools when drafting environmental management plans.  Not one of the 43 independent scientists that peer reviewed the Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan belonged to a social science discipline (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2011).  Given this potential oversight, it is not surprising that the management techniques have struggled to dynamically react to the ongoing conflict about wolves in Washington since they are built on assumptions about human behavior rather than on science about human behavior.  My research is intended to help bridge this gap in understanding.

When conducting research, it is easy to fall into a trap of looking at groups and categories as inanimate rather than as conglomerations of dynamic individuals.  For example, my general enjoyment of wildlife would likely give me the label of “environmentalist,” but my feelings about wildlife are much more nuanced than this label might suggest.  I am subject to the same types of psychological constraints as the citizens of Washington whom I studied.  When my experience is attacked I actively work against an “opposition” group to prove its validity.  In doing so, I devalue the science and experiences of others based on my perceived need to validate my group identity (Vallone, Ross, & Lepper, 1985; Maoz, Ward, Katz, & Ross, 2002) and, occasionally, actively work against my own interests (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011; Hart & Nisbet, 2012).  My research is not meant to be a pair of beaded eyes perched behind an aquiline nose wielding academia’s crooked talon.  It is meant to be a tool that anyone can pick up and find useful.  It is far too easy to read a study and walk away thinking, “X group is acting irrationally, they’re totally ignoring the science!” despite this being a valid conclusion.  In some ways, this is what the Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan is missing; it gives thought to survey data and public comments, it creates a multi-stakeholder advisory group, and implements what it assumes communities would appreciate.  Yet it does these things without acknowledgement of the psychological tendencies of the constituents it hopes to represent and, as such, does not actually meet their needs or assuage their concerns.  I am hardly the first person to notice this trend, scholars have advocated for the inclusion of social science in wolf listing determinations in the Northern Rocky Mountains because of similar circumstances (Bruskotter, Toman, Enzler, & Schmidt, 2010).

What Might Social Science Tell Us?

I used the psychological theories of Social Dominance and Right Wing Authoritarianism as mechanisms through which to understand human attitudes about wolves in Washington.  Social Dominance Theory is a psychological theory that explores hierarchical social structures and group-based dominance (Pratto & Stewart, 2011).  The theory suggests that groups perpetuate the hierarchical social structure through ‘hierarchy-enhancing legitimizing myths’ which reflect and reproduce the values of their culture (Pratto & Stewart, 2011).  Groups that seek to undermine the social hierarchy attempt to do so using ‘hierarchy-attenuating myths’; myths that promote social justice, human rights, and egalitarian relationships (Pratto & Stewart, 2011).  Support, or disdain, for this hierarchical structure can be understood through an individual’s ‘Social Dominance Orientation’ [SDO] score.  Individuals with a high SDO score will tend to see the world as a competitive hierarchy and desire it remain as such (Pratto & Stewart, 2011).  This hierarchical worldview will likely cause negative attitudes toward groups that are perceived as competing for dominance and/or superiority (Duckitt, 2006).  This theory fit well with historical wolf myths and rancher/hunter resistance to wolves due to competition.

Right Wing Authoritarianism focuses on social order through normative morals and values.  It was initially an exploration of anti-Semitic behavior, but later expanded into a broader psychological study of ethnocentricity (Feldman, 2003).  The theory was originally plagued by methodological inconsistencies, but was revised during the 1980s by a psychologist named Altemeyer.  He explored authoritarianism as a social attitude, instead of as a personality trait, and developed the RWA scale (Feldman, 2003).  According to the scale, those with a high RWA score should hold negative attitudes toward groups that are perceived as threatening to the social order, cohesion, and stability (Duckitt, 2006).

Much like Social Dominance Theory, studies about Right Wing Authoritarianism tend to focus on the implications for human-human relations.  However, recent survey studies support the idea that right-wing ideologies have a tendency to predict support for animal exploitation and meat consumption (Dhont & Hodson, 2014).  Furthermore, the studies found that those with strong right-wing ideologies “do not simply consume more animals because they enjoy the taste of meat, but because doing so supports dominance ideologies and resistance to cultural change” (Dhont & Hodson, 2014, p.1).  In said studies, vegetarians were coded as a potential social threat to the normative ‘carnism’ in Western countries.  Though still an overall dietary minority, as vegetarianism has grown in popularity and become associated with the moral concerns about animal exploitation, it is possible that it [vegetarianism] has begun to be perceived as an attack on social order.  Studies indicate this to be the case; both RWA and SDO were positive predictors of the perception of vegetarianism as a threat and indicators of support for the view that human supremacy is a legitimate social norm (Dhont & Hodson, 2014).

Studies like these carry potential implications for the wolf-resistant.  If wolf-resistant individuals view wolves as an attack on the moral and social establishment, then they will likely support their persecution.  The reintegration of wolves is a challenge to the status quo (the status quo being their absence) that theoretically interrupts, in unfavorable ways, the daily lives of rural communities.  Not only does it place a perceived economic constraint on rural families, it challenges the freedoms those families feel they are owed.  For example, if a rancher kills a wolf – something they believe they ought to be able to do – and are fined thousands of dollars for the killing, then their ideology is under attack.  Not only is their ideology under attack, their ideology is being actively penalized.  This type of penal logic could strengthen resentment of wolves, a resentment that already exists because of pre-existing cultural ideology.  Some rancher rhetoric supports this idea, it vilifies conservation as a restriction of gun rights and as a direct attack on constitutional liberties (Ketcham, 2014).  It is possible, then, that penalizing wolf-resistant populations for wolf persecution not only does not dissuade them from doing so, but encourages the behavior out of spite because it is viewed as a legitimate defense of cultural and social ideology.


Drawing on the analysis of historical wolf narratives, academic scholarship, and the potential implications of psychological research in Social Dominance Theory and Right Wing Authoritarianism, I formulated the following hypotheses:

1)  Anti-wolf communities express anti-wolf sentiments indicative of a desire to preserve their status within the normative social hierarchy more frequently than pro-wolf communities.

2)  Anti-wolf communities express anti-wolf sentiments indicative of a desire to preserve the traditional moral and social orders more frequently than pro-wolf communities.

3)  Policies that attempt to address the concerns of anti-wolf communities are ineffective at preventing conflict if they do not explicitly consider the implications of these two factors.

4)  Conflicts between anti-wolf and pro-wolf communities can be understood as tensions between those who wish to preserve traditional society and the hierarchies associated with it, and those who do not wish to preserve them.

The Sample and the Motives

In order to test my hypotheses, I evaluated the public testimony submitted during the Plan’s draft EIS process using motive categories.  The method used is consistent with other studies of motive imagery (Smith, 2008).  Recordings of the draft EIS public testimony are available through the WDFW’s website archives.  They took place in 2009 at twelve different Washington locations and capture a broad spectrum of interests and identities.  Each speaker was unique and, depending on location, was allotted three or four minutes of testimony.  Comments from this draft period were given special status in the development of the Plan and were supposed to be considered in the final draft.  This means that policy makers listened to this type of feedback and wrote the Plan to best address these concerns.

The motive categories that I developed and coded for were Social Hierarchy and Social Purity.  The Social Hierarchy motive is consistent with the implications of the scholarship I reviewed [in my original thesis work] and Social Dominance Theory.  It was coded to represent a concern with one’s place within the social hierarchy.  The second motive category, Social Purity, was coded to represent one’s concern with preserving the traditional social and moral orders.  Statements in this category were developed in the same fashion as those in the Social Hierarchy category.  The statement categories that I used were:

Social Hierarchy

1)  Wolves Threaten Rural Economics

2)  Wolves Threaten Cattle and Game Populations and Disrupt Balance

3)  Ranchers and Hunters Need Compensation

4)  Wolves Should be Classified as a Game Species

5)  General Funding

6)  Wolves Threaten Human Safety

Social Purity

1)  Wolves Threaten Rancher Way of Life

2)  Wolves are Immoral Killing Machines

3)  Wolves Infringe on Hunting Rights

4)  Wolves Threaten Rural Freedom and Increase Bureaucracy

5)  Wolves are the Anti-Christ and Their Return Will be the Downfall of Society

6)  All Wolves Deserve to Die

7)  Wolves Provide No Societal Benefit

Each statement relates to the broader category to which it belongs, but is distinct from the other comments in the category.  For example, the statement category “wolves threaten rural economics” captures the real or perceived threat wolves pose to the economic status of rural communities.  If wolves threaten a community’s financial capacity, then they threaten a community’s position in social hierarchy because money is an important indicator of social status.  An example from the public testimony that fit this category is: “I’d like to know when a wolf became more important than people making a living.”  This differs from comments in the category “wolves threaten game and cattle populations and disrupt balance.”  Comments in this category focused on the relationship between a rancher and their cattle or a hunter and their prey.  Wolves threaten the perceived relationship and dominance of the rancher/hunter relative to cattle or game.  For ranchers, the inability to tend to their flock (signifying ownership) threatened their dominance.  Similarly, hunters who prefer to view hunting as an aspect of being an apex predator and balancer of nature felt their predatory status was under threat.  An example from the public testimony that fit into this category is: “[Speaking about livestock] I have a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure those animals are not only fed and housed properly, but also prevent them from injury.”

The category “hunters and ranchers need compensation” focuses on a unique aspect of economics.  While similar to the “rural economics” category, this category focused on comments made at an individual level.  There were no indications of broader economic damage or trends, but focused on the individual threat to ranchers or hunters.  For example, if a hunter relies on hunting to feed their family and suddenly they are not allowed to hunt with the same level of gusto, then they might feel that the needs of wolves are being prioritized over their own needs.  The feeling that one’s well-being is directly damaged by another (wolves) fits nicely with Social Dominance Theory.  One example of a comment from the public testimony that fit into this category was: “we’re in a recession, people need food, and somehow you want to give it to the wolves.”  Another example from the public testimony is: “compensation is a must.  It should be the highest possible.”

“Wolves should be classified as a game species” captures the idea that wolves should not be given special status.  Special status indicates that they are better, or different, than human beings and, again, represents an attack on human social status.  This category also captures the notion that human beings are the only legitimate apex predator.  If wolves were categorized as a game species, they would be eligible to be hunted by humans.  In this scenario, human beings would be able to clearly see their dominant status.

The “general funding” category differs from the previous economic categories because it focuses on a cost-benefit relationship rather than on direct economic harm.  For example, images in this category focused on what would be lost or an individual’s stake in the funding.  A hunter might not want their tag money to be spent on wolves and, instead, want their money to be spent on preserving game populations.  This does not signify the type of economic harm of the other comment category, but does capture the identity piece often at play.  Comments such as, “why is their issue more important than my issue?” indicate a concern with relative positional hierarchy.  If one is at the top, one’s issue is the most important.  If one is not at the top, then one’s issue is not important.  Two examples from the public testimony that fit into this category are: “No way to fund it” and “this doesn’t seem fiscally sound.”

Finally, comments in the category “wolves threaten human safety” were those related to the perceived threat wolves pose for human health and well-being.  Comments in this category are obviously related to positional hierarchy because if one is attacked by a wolf and unable to protect oneself because of the legal status of wolves, then one is clearly less important than a wolf.  In this hypothetical scenario, the wolf’s life is given greater authority than the human’s life which signals that the wolf has greater hierarchical significance than the human being.  An example from the public testimony that fit into this category is: “I’ve climbed every mountain in the Methow, if there was wolves in there we woulda been eaten.”

Many of the Social Purity categories are related to the Social Hierarchy categories, but are distinct because they focus on traditional moral or social status quo.  For example, the category “wolves threaten rancher way of life” focuses on the intergenerational passing of the rancher torch.  Rather than simply commenting that cattle are threatened by wolves, though this sentiment might be present, comments in this category focused on the overall rancher lifestyle.  They might focus on a concern that their children will not have the opportunity to be beef growers in the same way that they were beef growers and that the traditional lifestyle is coming to an end.  An example of a comment that fit into this category from the public testimony is: “They’re running across the land, killing, and taking people’s land that they don’t want to be taken.”

“Wolves as immoral killing machines” focuses on the moral aspect of Social Purity.  Comments in this category draw a distinction between wolf and human harvest.  Humans are good people who are feeding their families and helping to restore ecological balance.  Wolves are glory killers and want their prey to suffer.  They know no limits and are not bound by normal predator-prey balance.  Comments in this category focused on the good/evil dichotomy found in much of the wolf literature.  An example from the public testimony that fit into this category is: “They know no fear and kill just to kill, frenzy kill.”

Much like threats to rancher way of life, comments in the “wolves infringe on hunting rights” category focused on threats to traditional hunting rights.  If a family has been hunting the same elk herd for hundreds of years and suddenly they are unable to because wolves have moved the herd or damaged the herd, then their tradition is sabotaged.  In this sense, wolves are seen as threatening their traditions and altering traditional order.  One example from the public testimony that fit into this category is: “I’ve heard rumors that this is a step toward gun control.  That these animals will take care of…that we don’t have to hunt, we don’t need guns.”

Comments in the category “wolves threaten rural freedom and increase bureaucracy” are distinct from threats to traditional ways of life because they focus on a change in bureaucratic relationship rather than intergenerational lifestyle.  For example, ranchers might feel that the government should not be dictating the types of safety standards and procedures that they take with their cattle herds.  In this sense, wolves might threaten traditional freedom or traditional ranching, but ranchers are still ranchers.  The beef raising profession still exists, it just looks a little bit different whereas comments in the way of life category signal actual end.  Examples of comments that fit into this category from the public testimony alluded to difficulties verifying kills due to process time, disproportionate impact on ranchers, lack of autonomy in decision-making, and decreased property values.

“Wolves are the anti-Christ and their return will be the downfall of society” is a straightforward Social Purity category.  Comments in this category indicate that wolves threaten morals (anti-Christ) and traditional society (downfall).  Similarly, “all wolves deserve to die” is a loaded traditional moral category that aligns with the traditional status quo (wolves completely exterminated for social benefit).  Both categories are related to comments that “wolves provide no social benefit” but were left distinct because they provide greater nuance.  The latter category is a broader catch-all.  An example of the category “all wolves deserve to die” from the public testimony is: “Since they took the wolf off the endangered species list [in Montana], everywhere you go the battle cry is ‘if you see a wolf, kill it.”

I coded for these motive categories using the ‘unique comment’ as my unit of measurement.  When defining a unique comment, I aligned them with sentences, but since the files are auditory and speech patterns are not consistent with written English, if someone changed topic mid-sentence, this was coded as a new unique comment because it represented a new idea and contained new imagery.  As I listened to the speakers, I noted the total number of unique comments, total time spoken, and marked whether a comment fell into one of the Social Hierarchy or Social Purity motive subcategories.  For each unique comment, only one image was calculated.

I divided the speakers into the following three categories: pro-wolf, anti-wolf, and unidentifiable.  The division between pro-wolf and anti-wolf was defined as whether speakers supported 15 or more breeding pairs.  Those who supported 15 or more breeding pairs were considered pro-wolf and those who did not were considered anti-wolf.  Individuals that did not belong to either category provided no indication of support or lack of support.


In total, I listened to testimony from 166 unique speakers, 75 were pro-wolf, 86 were anti-wolf, and 5 were unidentifiable.  The testimony lasted a total of 25,861 seconds.  10,733 seconds belonged to pro-wolf speakers, 14,382 seconds belonged to anti-wolf speakers, and 746 seconds belonged to unidentifiable speakers.  During this testimony, 3479 unique comments were identified.  Pro-wolf speakers accounted for 1595 unique comments, anti-wolf speakers accounted for 1791 comments, and the unidentifiable accounted for 93 unique comments.  Of the total unique comments (n=3479), 491 belonged to the Social Hierarchy motive category and 191 belonged to the Social Purity category.  In total, 19.6% (SH 14.1%, SP 5.5%) of public testimony fell into one of these two categories.

Of the total number of comments by anti-wolf members (n=1791), 24.6% (n=444) represented the Social Hierarchy Motive and 10.3% (n=185) represented the Social Purity motive.  This means that 34.9% of comments made by anti-wolf groups fell into one of these two motive categories.  In contrast, of the total number of comments made by pro-wolf members (n=1595), only 1.7% of comments (n=27) represented the Social Hierarchy motive and 0.1% (n=2) represented the Social Purity motive.  In total, only 1.8% of comments from the pro-wolf community could be identified as motives for Social Hierarchy or Social Purity.  Speakers that were not identifiable as pro-wolf or anti-wolf made comments that demonstrated a Social Hierarchy motive 21.5% (n=20) of the time and a Social Purity Motive 4.3% (n=4) of the time.  In total, 25.8% of the total comments (n=93) from unidentifiable speakers demonstrated motives for Social Hierarchy or Social Purity.

Beyond these broad representational differences in motive categories, there are significant differences between the individual statement categories as well.  For example, of the 1.7% of comments indicating Social Hierarchy motives amongst pro-wolf peoples, 67% (n=18) were focused on compensation for ranchers and 18.5% (n=5) focused on general funding.  This means that 85.5% (n=23) of the Social Hierarchy motive comments from pro-wolf commenters were focused purely on financial considerations.  Anti-wolf member Social Hierarchy motive comments primarily focused on threats to game and cattle populations.  56.5% (n=251) of their comments fell into this category compared to 22.1% (n=98) in the compensation and general funding categories.  Only 11.1% (n=3) of the total number (n=27) of pro-wolf commenters were concerned with impacts to cattle and game populations.  For anti-wolf members, even if you factor in the statement category of Wolves Threaten Rural Economics, economic concerns are less prevalent than threats to game and cattle populations.  In this case, 34.5% (n=153) economic versus 56.5% game and cattle.  The complete breakdown for the Social Hierarchy motive category can be seen in Figure 1.2.

Figure 1.2 Social Hierarchy Motive

Number of Speakers Number of Comments Rural Economics Cattle and Game Compensation Game Species General Funding Human Safety
All Commenters 166 3479 56 264 75 2 56 38
Anti-Wolf Commenters 86 1791 55 251 54 2 44 38
Pro-wolf Commenters 75 1595 1 3 18 0 5 0
Unidentifiable Commenters 5 93 0 10 3 0 7 0
Cumulative Categorical Total as a Percent of Total Comments N/A N/A 1.6% 7.6% 2.2% ~0% 1.6% 1.1%

While less significant in number, the Social Purity motive findings are equally telling.  Only two unique comments suggested a Social Purity motive for pro-wolf populations, both of those belonged to the Wolves are Immoral Killers category.  This category was the most significant for anti-wolf members as well.  Of the total number of Social Purity motive comments (n=185) made by anti-wolf members, 31.4% (n=58) belonged to this category.  Threats to Rancher Way of Life and Hunting Rights were the two other major motive concerns for Social Purity.  24.3% (n=45) of comments belonged to the former and 21.6% (n=40) to the latter.  The remaining comments fell into a variety of the categories, the complete breakdown can be seen Figure 1.3.   

Figure 1.3 Social Purity Motive

Number of Speakers Number of Comments Rancher Life Killing Machines Hunting Rights Rural Freedom Anti-Christ Deserve to Die No Benefit
All Commenters 166 3479 45 60 41 27 0 7 11
Anti-wolf Commenters 86 1791 45 58 40 24 0 7 11
Pro-wolf Commenters 75 1595 0 2 0 0 0 0 0
Unidentifiable Commenters 5 93 0 0 1 3 0 0 0
Cumulative Categorical Total as a Percent of Total Comments N/A N/A 1.3% 1.7% 1.2% 0.7% 0% .02% .03%

I used a chi-square test to determine whether there was a statistically significant difference between pro-wolf and anti-wolf commenters in use of Social Hierarchy or Social Purity motives.  The p-value for Social Hierarchy was less than .001 which indicates there is a statistical difference in use of Social Hierarchy motive imagery between pro-wolf and anti-wolf commenters.  The p-value for Social Purity was also less than .001 and, again, demonstrates a statistical difference in use of Social Purity motive imagery between the two major groups.

So, What Does It Mean?

So, what exactly does this all mean for Washington and, more broadly, social science in wildlife management?  My first two hypotheses were supported.  Both Social Hierarchy and Social Purity Motives were significantly higher amongst anti-wolf community members than amongst pro-wolf community members.  Unlike some of the literature reviewed earlier, this does not necessarily indicate that anti-wolf populations are higher in SDO or RWA, though it may, because it is possible that pro-wolf members had an undisclosed financial incentive tied to wolf return that would strengthen their relative position in the social hierarchy.  I find this unlikely because most pro-wolf comments were about the ecological benefits wolves would provide and a call to restore the landscape to its original wild state.  There were a few comments about the financial benefits of ecotourism, but those were far less prevalent and no one identified as someone who would specifically benefit from ecotourism.

My third hypothesis is consistent with other SDO and RWA studies and implies that to the extent that these conditions are present – which my data demonstrates – they bear consideration.  If they are not given consideration, conflicts will occur.  For example, for both populations there existed an economic concern about compensation and general funding.  The Plan has an extensive section about compensation for cases of predation.  Whether this type of compensation is acceptable is a separate question.  There’s evidence that suggests it might not be.  For example, Carol Bogezi, a researcher from the University of Washington, writes, “With compensation, someone comes in and you have to write [everything] down, and it’s like you’re begging for this money” (as cited in O’Neill, 2017).  If one is being handed money, it signals a lower position in social hierarchy.  It is possible, then, that this type of compensation is actually counterproductive for moderating wolf conflict.  Bogezi suggests that if incentive programs are instead tied to market factors, which she indicates ranchers like to work with, such as a special certification status for meat that is “wolf friendly,” then their position in social hierarchy is not only elevated by an increase in wealth, but uniquely tied to the fate of wolves (O’Neill, 2017).  Compensation taking the latter form satisfies a variety of potential conflict flashpoints.  Conservationists get their wolves back, ranchers have their status in the social hierarchy reinforced, and potential conflict is diffused.  Compensation programs that manifest in ways that reinforce the idea that wolves are threatening to one’s position in the social hierarchy will result in wolf persecution and cultural stratification between those who persecute and those who support.  Ultimately, if one must rely on government handouts; if one is not allowed to protect individual property and instead must rely on the protection of another; if one must prove the validity of one’s experience to its overseer because of inherent distrust, then one’s status in social hierarchy is diminished and one will lash out at the perceived threat.  All these aspects are inherent in Washington’s compensation program.  This does not necessarily mean that those impacted will actively kill wolves, but it does mean that they will not support wolves.  One of Washington’s goals is to increase support and acceptance of wolves.  Those least likely to support wolves initially are the same people whose position in the social hierarchy is theoretically most threatened by them.  Effective policy ought to consider these aspects.

When it was published in 2011, the authors of the Plan stated that they did not know what the impacts on hunter harvest were going to be.  Today, I have no idea what the impacts have been and lack the knowledge of population dynamics to know.  That said, given that over 50% of the comments pertaining to Social Hierarchy motives were concerned with threats to game and balance, I can make predictions.  In so far as the Plan, and the broader policies influenced by it such as total number of hunting licenses issued, have real or perceived negative impacts on the relationship between hunters and game animals, wolves and their allies will be persecuted.  If licenses are limited; if hunting seasons are shorter; if game numbers diminish; if license fees increase to support the cost of managing wolves; if yearly take across the board is lower; if gun liberties are restricted, then wolves and their allies will be blamed and support for wolves will diminish.  The WDFW should consider ways in which to strengthen the anti-wolf community’s relationship with game and, where possible, directly tie that strength to the return of wolves.  For example, if hunting seasons were opened longer to expressly account for the potential movement of ungulates due to the presence of wolves, rather than restricted due to concerns of total population numbers, sportsman may be less likely to resist wolves.  Ultimately, I do not have the knowledge about game management and population dynamics to provide feasible recommendations for how best to do this.  However, I do have the knowledge to suggest that the WDFW should attempt to do this and that if it is executed appropriately, sportsman concerned with their position within the social hierarchy will be more likely to accept wolves than if not executed appropriately.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the Social Purity motive data.  Insofar as the WDFW designs policy that threatens one’s traditional social expectations, they should expect resistance to wolves.  If one designs policy expectations that require ranchers to jump through a number of hoops that fundamentally challenge intergenerational aspects of their way of life, then one should expect resistance.  If one takes away traditional hunting “rights” in favor of another species, one should expect resistance.  Again, the hope is that people will accept wolves, but why would they unless wolves explicitly reinforce Social Purity standards.  Questions such as, “how can wolves reinforce the traditional rancher way of life?” are the types of questions that need to be asked when crafting policy.  If someone wants to defend their livestock with a rifle as they always have, and someone else gives them an electric fence and says it is more responsible, the individual who asked for the rifle is not going be satisfied.  They are unlikely to accept whatever is responsible for this new burden.  If the WDFW wants ranchers to accept wolves, then the WDFW needs to consider ways in which to validate rancher and hunter ways of life and rights and reduce the salience of real or perceived threats.  I do not know enough about ranchers or hunters to provide concrete examples as how to best do this, but until this is achieved, conflict should be expected.

A lot of the Social Hierarchy and Social Purity motive statements are partially built on misinformation or interpretations of information in ways that potentially threaten one’s status.  The WDFW repeatedly stresses the importance of an educated public for gray wolf conservation.  In order to accomplish this, the WDFW writes that it will provide access to factual information and work with the public on sightings and depredation events (WDFW, 2011).  I do not think this is going to work because I think that without consideration of Social Hierarchy and Social Purity concerns, factual information is irrelevant for changing minds.  When someone has a significant experience that is powerful enough to change their psyche, or belongs to a group with a collective psyche, shoving scientific data down their throat to demonstrate that that experience was a statistical rarity does not work.  People dig in, fight back, become more polarized, and I think this is evident in Madden’s (cited in original these) work.

In some ways, the first three hypotheses support hypothesis four.  Francine Madden found that groups are becoming more stratified, support for wolves is waning, and conflict is becoming more severe.  One way to understand this fracturing is through Social Hierarchy and Social Purity motives.  One group is focused on threats to their position in hierarchy from wolves and the other group is trying to balance or diminish the hierarchy by placing greater emphasis on special status for wolves.  Additionally, one group thinks wolves are ruthless killers that threaten traditional ways of life and the other group thinks they are harmless and pose no threat.  Those are obvious divisions.  Initially, wolves were being poached by those who felt threatened.  These concerns prompted greater lethal removal by the WDFW.  This lethal removal then threatened conservationist concerns about ecological balance (anti-hierarchy) and caused conservationists to issue death threats.  I believe that if the WDFW considered these factors, some of the division would decrease and, thus, so would conflict.  Ultimately, the success and acceptance of wolves is not going to be primarily driven by their environmental capacity, it is going to be driven by human acceptance and experience.  Until human tendencies and human identities are given proper consideration in Washington, and environmental planning more broadly, I do not expect conflicts over how best to manage a species like wolves to diminish.

Closing Remarks

Given the immense number of biological factors necessary for success, wildlife management is never an easy task.  It is made more difficult when the cultural identities of different groups are tied to a given species’ success or demise.  The reestablishment of the Gray Wolf in Washington state provides an excellent case study about the complexities of this type of management.  Despite being considered one of the best wildlife management policies in the country because of its comprehensiveness, Washington’s Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan has struggled to moderate conflict over wolves in Washington.  One of the most basic questions scholars can ask is: why?  We will probably never have a satisfactory answer, but we do have some clues as to why wolves are such a hotly debated species.

For starters, wolves are not human beings and so it is unlikely we will ever be able to give them the same type of consideration that we give our own species.  Like humans, they are a predator and, though a statistical rarity, can be dangerous.  Given the way that human psychology functions, when someone has a negative experience with a predator it is extremely difficult to overcome the impact by simply presenting a statistic demonstrating how rare it is.  It does not matter how rare it is, it still happened.  In this sense, the statistic simply validates that the experience was not unique and the logical conclusion, given the perceived negative impact of the experience, is a desire to prevent others from having the experience.

When one considers how these experiences are shaped at a broader social level, distinct narratives begin to emerge and become rallying points for social identities.  Wolves, for whatever reason, have seemingly always been an identity flashpoint and scholars have devoted significant time to uncovering the features of wolf imagery throughout human history.  By far the two most prominent narratives in available scholarship are: wolves as threats to human livelihood and wolves as morally perverse beasts that ought to be eradicated.  The next question a scholar might ask is, “in what ways does Washington’s Plan account for the historical wolf narratives?”  This question is equally challenging to answer.  Public feedback was sought on numerous occasions and much of the policy within the Plan directly responds to the surface level feedback provided.  However, there is no clear indication that the policy aspects aimed at assuaging the public concerns within the Plan are based on our understanding of social science.  This is significant because the biological aspects of the Plan are heavily scrutinized.  Why was social science about human behavior not used?  Especially when one considers that the Plan itself recognizes the human barrier to success?  I do not know, I am not sure the people who wrote the Plan know.  In responding to my own question, I conducted a psychological study, the synopsis of which you just read.

Ultimately, social science has a lot to offer wildlife management.  It does not require dramatic changes in government structure or human-wildlife interaction model.  It does not require shifts in socioeconomic conditions or dramatic changes in human recreation.  It is simply one way to write better wildlife management policy and is valuable because it considers wildlife management’s largest hurdle: human behavior.  We ought to use it.

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