Issue of the Week: Social Tolerance of Wildlife

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Social tolerance of wildlife can be explained as the number of animals people find acceptable in an area. If wildlife numbers exceed tolerable levels—for example, if deer are damaging a farmer’s crops or bears are rummaging through residential garbage cans — their opinion may be that animal numbers need to be reduced.

Problems arise when humans have drastically different social tolerance levels of wildlife.  Crop farmers, livestock owners, sportsmen, homeowners, industrial corporations, animal welfare and rights groups, and several other stakeholders disagree with how many animals are acceptable. Furthermore,  tolerance also varies according to the wildlife species. Arachnids and Insects, for example, are more often seen as pests than mammals and birds. The objective is to establish accurate carrying capacities for regions to abide by, but understanding what the social carrying capacity should be for a species is almost as difficult as actually achieving the objective, especially when politics get involved.

Predator species are often politically sensitive. Predators such as wolves and mountain lions are experiencing population increases in areas where ranching and human development are growing. As a result, livestock and even pets become part of the food chain. They are often an easy source of prey for these large predators. Controversy has spiked over certain cases involving wolves in the Northwest, Great Lakes and Rocky Mountain regions and has become one of the most politically charged species in our time. In a letter to the Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Dan Ashe, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife expressed that tolerance has its limits.

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The letter states: “A critical component to successful wolf recovery is social acceptance. Acceptance is advanced when we have the ability to resolve chronic wolf-livestock conflicts. Washington’s plan stresses the need for preventative; non-lethal measures for proactively managing conflict….However, wolves can develop patterns focusing on livestock as prey. Although the situations may not be common, when such a behavior pattern does occur, lethal removal of problem wolves may be a necessary.”

In a 1983 U.S. Fish and Wildlife research project, Kellert S.R. and Westervelt M.O. research the changing attitudes humans had towards wildlife by using newspaper articles as a means of examining trends. They found that 48 percent of articles expressed a utilitarian view on wildlife management. It also found that as time progressed people seemed to move toward a more humanistic (affectionate) response to wildlife.  These changing attitudes make proper management plans difficult to obtain as many groups place emotions before science. Some cases, as we have seen, show lethal measures are needed to maintain population numbers and curb conflict, but many groups oppose these actions strictly because they’re against all lethal action. The idea of sustainability is lost on them.

“Our job as wildlife managers is to use the best available biological and social sciences to implement management programs that maximize wildlife resources and public opportunity to utilize and enjoy those resources while staying within social tolerances and minimizing negative impacts to society” Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist for Madison Valley Dean Waltee said.

Attitudes towards wildlife will vary from region to region, but tolerance levels must be taken into account. As hunter conservationists, we understand the need for “small footprints” but also understand that cohabitation is only achieved if proper management strategies are in place and successfully evaluating social tolerance is a necessary step toward that goal.

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news.

Works Cited: Kellert, S. R. & Westervelt, M. O. (1983). Trends in animal use and perception in 20th century America. U. S. Government Printing Service, Washington, DC, 166pp.

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