The way Americans value wildlife has shifted away from hunting and fishing traditions, but wildlife agencies remain one of the most trusted parts of U.S. government.
Those findings show up in a new study by Colorado State University, which looked both nationally and state by state at what we think about wildlife and the way we manage it. It also examined the culture within agencies like Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, where staff game wardens and biologists try to reflect the wishes of the people they serve.
“It’s a changing world,” said lead investigator Michael Manfredo, who heads the Human Dimensions and Natural Resources program at CSU. “We’ve gone from a world where we perceived wildlife as something we had control over and should use the way we wish, to a world where we regard animals as human-like, with a certain amount of rights like humans have. There’s too much at stake here not to deal with it.”
The study charted trends over the past 15 years showing how people think about wild animals like grizzly bears, trumpeter swans and rainbow trout. First it defined where people stood in relation to wildlife: traditionalists who tend to believe animals should be managed to benefit people, and mutualists who see animals as part of their social network.
In between those two sides are pluralists who support both attitudes, such as big-game hunters who dislike lethal control of predators. A fourth group, the “distanced,” aren’t interested in wildlife at all.
Nationwide, traditionalists make up 28% of the population, while mutualists comprise 35%. The ranks of traditionalists have fallen about 5.7% between 2004 and 2018. Mutualists have grown by 4.7%. That’s reflected in the declining numbers of people who hunt and fish, compared to growing numbers who like non-consumptive activities like bird-watching.
Montana and its neighboring Rocky Mountain states lean the other way, although they all report their share of traditionalists declining. Montana had one of the highest pluralist populations in the nation at 29%, and had more people feeling that way than its neighboring states of Idaho, Wyoming or the Dakotas. It had about the same amount of traditionalists as Idaho (39%), but fewer than Wyoming or the Dakotas.
Wildlife was definitely on the minds of Rocky Mountain state residents. While almost every other state in the nation had more than 10% in the “distanced” category, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas were all in single digits (Montana was 7.7%). California and New York each had more than 20% in that distanced column.
“That distanced group worries me,” Manfredo said. “In some places, that’s one-fifth of the public that doesn’t give a rip about wildlife. If that grows, that’s problematic.”
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Part of his concern was the finding that most Americans fundamentally misunderstand how wildlife management is funded. Only 14% correctly assumed that the agencies’ budgets come primarily from hunting and fishing license sales. More than four out of five respondents thought FWP is funded through a mix of license sales and public general fund dollars, and 4% believed the whole agency budget came from the general fund.
“The birth of fish and wildlife agencies came at a time when market hunting and poaching was a problem,” Manfredo said. “The amazing success of recovering America’s wildlife populations is largely due to funding from hunters and anglers. But today’s problems are much more complex.”
Wildlife Management Institute western field representative Chris Smith pointed to the study’s observation that mutualist attitudes have grown at the same time the nation’s population has been relocating to big cities. That can have big impacts for decision-making on animals with a national status, such as bison.
For example, Smith said many ranchers around Yellowstone National Park see bison as a threat to their economic bottom line and their job of feeding the nation. But people in Chicago or Miami may value the bison as the national mammal, and object to hazing or killing the herds that try to migrate outside the park toward winter pastures covered with cattle ranches.
“Wildlife managers can’t just gather the information and science on the table and let the political process sort it out,” Smith said. “They have to find a basis for civil discourse, rather than allowing the parties to duke it out.”
Fish and game agencies may be the best possible place to have those debates, however. The survey found respect and trust for wildlife managers was far greater than other public servants. Nationwide, 70% of the survey’s respondents trusted wildlife agencies most or all the time, compared to 43% who had faith in state government in general. The federal government trust rate was 22%.
Montana FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said the agency is aware its employees tend to be more traditionalist than the public it serves. It also gets the biggest share of its revenue from license sales and excise taxes from hunting, fishing and shooting. But many of its services go to people outside those worlds. For example, most of the users of state fishing access sites aren’t there to fish, but to walk dogs, picnic or go bird-watching.
“There’s always a tension between hunters and anglers and other folks who don’t have a direct way to pay for management,” Lemon said. “That overlooks the fact that Montanans trust us as an agency and have confidence in us. I don’t think you would see that level of trust if we didn’t do a good job as stewards of fish and wildlife on their behalf.”