Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wolf management about studying people, too

Wausau — The primary challenge of modern wildlife management is not related to wildlife. It has to do with people.

Aldo Leopold, one of our guiding lights in conservation, was wearied during the Wisconsin deer wars of the middle 20th century. An aphorism from that era is often expressed as: "Deer management is easy. People management is tough."

As the decades have proved, good resource management must take into account social and biological data. Human dimensions of wildlife conservation is increasingly acknowledged as a leading field of science. It's a study of how people's knowledge, values and behaviors influence and are affected by decisions about wildlife and natural resources.

But the social component can't be just a selection of comments or opinions. If you listen only to the people who yell loudest or who turn up at a meeting or have privileged access to decision-makers, you're not likely to get a true representation of public sentiment. Social science must be just as rigorous and well-designed as any biological study.

The field of human dimensions of wildlife took center stage this week in Wisconsin — in a good way.
On Tuesday, the Department of Natural Resources released "Public Attitudes towards Wolves and Wolf Management in Wisconsin." The report detailed results of a 2014 mail survey of Wisconsin residents. The survey was designed and conducted by DNR social scientists Bob Holsman, Natalie Kaner and Jordan Petchenik. The DNR sent 7,150 surveys to residents in wolf range and 1,600 to households outside wolf range. Fifty-nine percent were returned. The survey set out to measure public opinion about wolves and wolf management among state residents.

The information is available just in time as the agency works to update its wolf management plan. It is scheduled to have a draft plan available for public comment this fall and a final plan to the Natural Resources Board in early 2015.

What should be in the plan? How should wolves, which have recovered over the last four decades, be managed? Perhaps no issue reveals as wide a range of opinions in Wisconsin as wolf management.
Since the Legislature quickly passed a 2012 law creating a wolf hunting and trapping season, the DNR has worked to push wolf numbers down. The target: a 350 animal goal listed in a 1999 management plan.

Is that what the public wants? The public attitudes survey provides the DNR with the best wolf information it has ever had at its disposal. Among survey respondents in wolf range, 53% wanted wolf numbers maintained at current levels or increased in their county of residence, while 18% wanted wolves decreased and 15% wanted them eliminated.

This portion of the survey is critical, since residents of wolf range live with depredation issues. When more than half of local residents want wolf numbers held steady or even increased in their county, the level of support for wolves is high. Outside of wolf range, 56% wanted wolf numbers maintained or increased statewide. At the time the survey was administered, Wisconsin had a minimum of 660 wolves, according to the DNR. If the DNR produces a wolf plan that sticks to the old goal of 350, it can expect — and it will deserve — a public outcry.

Another aspect of the survey is notable: Most state residents support a "public wolf harvest."
Forty percent supported a hunting and trapping season as a tool for reducing the wolf population, 26% supported the season as long as it can be sustainable, 21% opposed the season and 17% were undecided. The agency deserves credit for taking on such a large-scale, sophisticated survey. If you don't think 59% response rate on 8,750 surveys is high, check the next political poll you hear quoted. It's sample size will likely be less than 1,000.

The DNR budgeted about $70,000 for the work, said Holsman, whom the DNR hired in 2013. He previously worked for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The agency gets a tip-of-the-cap also for doing work that could have — and did — produce a rebuke to its plan to reduce wolves to 350.

Wisconsin residents have apparently adjusted to wolves in the post-delisting era. A majority of the public supports a regulated wolf harvest and a wolf population at least as large as it has this year.
Armed with perhaps the best human dimensions research ever conducted in Wisconsin, it's now the DNR's job to make the updated wolf management plan reflect the public's views.