It was October 2007, and I was half-living out of my car while circumnavigating the 6,845-square mile Mexican gray wolf reintroduction area straddling New Mexico and Arizona. I was interviewing stakeholders in the wolf reintroduction project for my master’s thesis. Short on cash, I was camping out and couch-surfing for the two months my project spanned. In late October, I found myself leaving an interview near Alpine, Arizona racing against a setting sun. I had to find a camp site — quickly. The map indicated camping spots about 10 miles down the highway at a place called Luna Lake. When I arrived, the last rays were filtering through the woods, and I discovered a steel swing-gate closing off the camp sites. They were closed for winter, a sign said. (A few days earlier, I’d camped at Big Lake and the first snow of the season piled up on my tent, dumping about two soft inches that night.) With nowhere else to go, I pulled my car onto an off-road vehicle trail near the closed camping area and set up my tent just off the road. Falling asleep, I heard the woods alive with birds and insects calling out their songs.
I awoke a few hours later to a distinct howling. It trailed off to the west of me, and was answered by another howl to the south. Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I dared myself to believe these sounds were emanating from endangered Mexican gray wolves. The howls were forlorn and skipped across octaves, their range seemed musical and foreign. For two or three minutes, the animals howled back and forth from the west and the south. Then a third animal began howling with the second to the south. The two wolves’ howls twined around each other, starting low and simple and climbing upwards in pitch into a complex duet of crescendos ending in a long flat cry. I drifted back to sleep, hoping that it was Canis lupus baileyi roaming in the night. The animal’s howls woke me up three more times that night, each time the three seemed a little closer together, until all their cries sounded off from the south. The last time I heard them, they sounded much more distant as if traveling away from me.
Earlier that day, a biologist had told me that perspectives about Mexican gray wolf reintroduction varied so widely that, as he explained it, two people could be camping in the woods and hear a wolf howl. To one person, it would be the most magical, mystical experience they ever had. To the other, they’d be up all night, clutching a weapon, terrified they were about to be eaten.
I fall in to the mystical and magical experiential category this biologist described. Though to me, the “magic” was simply hearing a set of endangered large predators doing their thing in the singing wilderness, and the hope that stemmed from their presence that maybe someday they’d be back in ecologically effective numbers.
The million dollar question, of course, is how to get their numbers up into the realm of ecological effectiveness. When dealing with the social obstacles raised by people affected by wolf reintroductions (and the presence of other large predators likely to be targeted for conservation, like grizzlies, wolverines and mountain lions), one line of discussion that often comes up is that of incentives.
What incentives can we devise to spark people’s interest in conserving large carnivores — especially people who might otherwise be opposed to their presence, reintroduction or recovery?
“Negative incentives” for wolf conservation
In an age where we finally understand the important ecological role of apex predators, and in an age when most of North America’s large apex predators have been removed or their populations whittled down to functionally ineffective sizes, large carnivore conservation is a chronic hot topic politically, socially and scientifically. I have to admit, after doing my master’s thesis on stakeholder beliefs and values of Mexican gray wolf reintroduction, I’ve retained my interest in predator ecology but lost some of my stamina for writing and blogging about it that I once had. (I let my natural cynicism take hold and for the past few years, I confess, while I acknowledge my scientific interest in large predator ecology, I feel somewhat down about the probability that large-scale efforts will succeed largely due to the hostility presented by rural citizens where the animals are most likely to be reintroduced.)
Probably the only thing more contested than reintroducing large predators is the question of what kind of incentives to offer those who may be affected by the animals’ presence. Wolves especially have a reputation for damaging property that walks around on four-hooved legs, and for killing or maiming pet or livestock guard dogs. Up until a few months ago, in the U.S., the Defenders of Wildlife offered compensation to livestock producers whose cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs and other domestic stock animals (or guard dogs) were killed or maimed by gray wolves or Mexican gray wolves that were either reintroduced or that had recolonized parts of the West. In August of this year, the environmental organization ended the compensation program. To the general public, it may have looked like they were abandoning their mission to remove the argument of economic burden that ranchers were espousing in fighting against gray wolf recovery. But this isn’t so.
Defenders of Wildlife started their Baileyi Wolf Fund to help offset the economic burden forecast for livestock producers of the Northern Rocky Mountains and the desert Southwest when gray wolves and Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced to these regions. The logic was straightforward and the conservation group decided to put their money where their mouth was. So what went wrong? Well, a lot of things. Many livestock producers complained that they were philosophically opposed to accepting money from an environmental group that had “forced” wolves on them in the first place. Others questioned the valuation methods. How to value a dead heifer? Or a bull? The DoW compensation program paid market value for the animal, as if it had been sold at auction instead of eaten by a wolf. But a productive heifer would continue to add calfs to a herd — calfs that the rancher may sell or grow out — over her lifetime, so should a young heifer also command the future value of the calves that she might have produced in her lifetime? And by that logic, should an older heifer at the end of her breeding days command less? And what about the cases where the ranchers use leased public land, sometimes quite rugged, in the southwest where they may not find the carcass for a month or more, after which passage of time bears and coyotes may have also scavenged on the carcass so that no one really knows if it was killed by a wolf or not? And what about the carcasses that are never even found? Plus, in my own master’s research, some of the livestock producers I interviewed said they were ideologically opposed to being compensated when they were prevented from protecting their cattle in the first place (this comment was based on hands-off conservation laws for protecting the Mexican gray wolf, an endangered species listed as a non-essential experimental population, which said that the wolf had to be in the act of attacking a livestock animal before a rancher could shoot it). These are just some of the questions that are routinely raised by livestock producers challenging the fairness of the compensation model used for the past 23 years.
Conservationists, on the other hand, argue that paying for a dead cow — and paying consistently — places no burden on the rancher to alter their husbandry methods such that they might invest in preventing wolf attacks in the first place. Why change anything if they know there’s a safety net that will pay out? They also argue that using a negative incentive, such as paying for a loss, overshadows promoting positive incentives, such as paying for the density of predators in a given area. What sounds more favorable to increasing tolerance for wolves on the land: paying for the animals these wolves kill or eat, or paying for the presence of the wolves, no matter if they prey on livestock or not? Other positive or neutral incentives include something called proactive measures, which aim to help livestock producers come up with customized solutions to their unique predator problems. Maybe they need a little money so they can build pens to switch from having their pregnant cows birth on the open range to birthing in controlled pens — where the vulnerable calves are born and grow strong for a few weeks before being turned back out on to the land where bears, coyotes, cougars and wolves may think they are tasty little treats. Maybe the rancher needs help building fences, or placing fladry or turbo fladry around certain areas… maybe they need some range riders to hep deter attacks — all these things aim to prevent the predator attacks in the first place, and to help ranchers re-adjust to having wolves on the landscape again.
So it turns out that paying for wolf-killed livestock — no matter how good the intentions are — is often a negative incentive for predator conservation. That is, it frames the focal predator’s conservation in a largely negative perspective. (Imagine it this way: you raise sheep and one morning you wake up to find a dozen of your sheep missing and only six carcasses. You eventually get paid for the six dead sheep, but you’ve lost value from the six that were never found yet you know to be missing, and now your neighbors won’t talk to you because you accepted funds from an environmental organization, which is akin to going over to the Dark Side given the culture of the rugged and self-reliant part of the country where you live. Not exactly the kind of situation that wins over those that need winning over, is it?)
Part of the reason this frames the situation negatively is because it address the issue after the damage was done, instead of working to prevent damages from occurring in the first place. The way the DOW compensation program was set up, ranchers did not have to alter their livestock husbandry methods to qualify for compensation — meaning, they did not have to adopt new methods to prevent a wolf attack in the first place. (Though the group did try to use the compensation program as a way to initiate a conversation with ranchers dealing with predator problems so they could get the rancher in to their pro-active program.)
A study by Stacey Vynne published in Human Dimensions of Wildlife describes a mail-in survey she performed with ranchers operating within the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, where Mexican wolves have been re-introduced since 1997. She surveyed them for their attitudes toward the DOW livestock compensation program, degree to which they utilized the program, what may be influencing those who chose to forgo it, and what they felt were acceptable alternatives that could help them in their area. Though her sample size was small (about 8 percent of the livestock producers in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, the response rate to her mail survey was above average (about 41 percent). She found that livestock producers were overwhelmingly opposed to the Defenders of Wildlife livestock compensation program, with 50 percent reporting “satisfaction with the amount of compensation they received,” but 100 percent reporting dissatisfaction with the process itself. Vynne wrote:
Livestock producers felt barred from participating in the program because of mistrust of key players and misperceptions of wolves, wolf recovery, and the purpose of compensation. For example, 72% of participants viewed compensation as a publicity stunt by environmental organizations and believed programs were not designed with livestock producers’ needs in mind. Of the interview participants, 75% feared potential harm to humans from wolves, and a lack of support for any program associated with wolf recovery. Although 79% felt that compensation was not the best solution, over 50% supported investments in proactive measures (e.g., fencing), compensation for other damages, tax credits for livestock losses, and further investment in monitoring and research for wolves and depredations.
Having spoken to several DOW employees, my opinion is that the group started the compensation fund as a sincere way to help remove obstacles to wolf recovery — I do not think it was a “publicity stunt.” However, I think Vynne’s results reveal the incredibly low levels of trust between livestock producers and large environmental organizations. This trust factor is at the root of many problems between the two groups, as my own thesis research revealed.
In a similar vein, paying for tolerance among rural citizens also has lukewarm appeal, studies show. While rural citizens who aren’t livestock producers are more likely to be worried about perceived safety threat to their children (versus dealing with actual attacks on cattle and sheep), some may also suffer actual attacks on their pets. But offering compensation for a pet — sometimes thought of as a family member by those who lost it — also spurs negative emotions in people.
A study published in Conservation Biology in 2003 looked into rural citizens’ attitudes toward wolves in Wisconsin. (It should be noted that wolves in Wisconsin naturally re-colonized the area from stock in Canada, and that natural recolonizations tend to produce a different, more tolerant attitude than animals reintroduced to their historic range by a governmental entity.) The study found that social group was the largest indicator of intolerance to wolves, with bear hunters outranking livestock producers, which in turn out-ranked rural citizens. Bear hunters come into conflict with wolves here because they often use dogs to flush the bears. The researchers used a mail survey to test 535 rural citizens in Wisconsin for the affect of direct encounters with wolves, and compensation payments for lost domestic animals, upon their attitudes toward large carnivores (specifically wolves). The majority of their respondents were landowners who hunted and who had experienced a direct encounter with a wolf (classified as hearing them howl or seeing a wolf on their property, or having a domestic animal harmed by a wolf), and 57 percent of them had grown up in small towns of 2000 or less people. They found that:
The cohorts showed significant difference in their tolerance for wolves. Bear hunters were most likely—at 73.4%—to favor reducing or eliminating Wisconsin’s wolf population, compared with 44.8% of livestock producers and 28.5% of the general rural population (Kruskal-Wallis H = 107.7, p < 0.0001).
They also found that of those in the sample who had been compensated for a lost pet or livestock animal, they were slightly less tolerant of wolves than those who had not been compensated. Compensated individuals were slightly more likely to report that they would shoot a wolf in the future if they encountered it while deer hunting, and people who had been compensated were also more likely to vote for reducing the state’s wolf population.
Compensation for carnivore damages, it seems, doesn’t always serve the goal of increasing tolerance for large predators.
So then, what might work?
“Positive incentives,” a case study from Sweden
A possible solution to this sticky web of negative incentives is compensating livestock producers and rural citizens for the presence of focal carnivore species on their lands, specifically paying for their offspring each year. In the case of wolves, this method provides a positive frame for their recovery because if it is documented that there are wolves on your land and that they have reproduced then you get paid for each new pup. More carnivore babies equals more money in your pocket, and it doesn’t take an ecologist to know that more offspring is a starting point to upping the survival rates of these predators into adulthood. In the case of red wolf reintroduction, perhaps this method might even offset the number of breeding individuals that meet death via human hands, because people would have a greater incentive to let breeding animals live and to protect them. Breeding carnivores would essentially by cash cows for those affected. An obvious limitation of this approach is that most environmental groups, and the government, don’t have buckets of cash lying around to protect wolves (or other carnivores) in this way.
A case study for this approach is found in Sweden, and it was reported on in a study in Conservation Biology in 2008. The Swedish government sought to increase the number of wolverine, lynx and gray wolves in their country, but the traditional Sami reindeer herders posed an obstacle because they routinely killed these predators in order to protect their livestock. Wolverine and lynx prey almost exclusively on reindeer in this area and scientists estimate each predator may kill up to 40 reindeer per year. Herders are known to lose up to 20 percent of their flocks each year to carnivore attacks. So the government pays the Sami villages collectively through a complicated formula that takes into account the density of predator offspring versus the presence of reindeer and assumes estimated losses and extra trouble taken to prevent further losses… and eventually they come up with a number. The villages have clearly defined geographic borders, which makes divvying up the funds easier to do. From the Zabel and Holm-Muller paper:
The conservation performance payments are made by the Swedish state to Sami villages contingent on the number of carnivore reproductions that are certified on the villages’ reindeer grazing grounds. The payments are made irrespective of actual predation incidents. Incentives to apply optimal levels of livestock protection are not distorted and consequently the scheme does not give rise to moral hazard. Furthermore, there are no problems with time lags because payments are made for carnivore offspring (i.e., while the animals are too young to cause damage). The amount of payment is determined according to the monetary damage that the off- spring are expected to cause throughout their lifetime.
The payment made per pup or kit is equivalent to $29,000. I don’t know how much a reindeer costs in Sweden at market value, but my reading of the paper indicates that this amount is greater than the Sami would collect on a per predator-killed livestock basis. Plus, it pays regardless of whether the pup or kit survives well into adulthood to actually carry out the damage it is estimated to inflict. The Sami get to decide, collectively, how to spend the money.
Granted, this sort of approach would likely have been more popular and feasible in the U.S. before the Age of the Great Bailout Bills came to pass, but it’s still a model worth discussing. By devising a formula to pay the Sami for the crop of predator offspring on their lands, the Swedish government afforded them the opportunity to use the carnivore conservation funds they receive to underwrite new herding methods to protect their stock before an attack happened. If they were really successful, they could prevent attacks (preserving their equity in their livestock) and get paid for having predators around — which sounds like a real win-win to me. Plus, payments for focal carnivore offspring would (in theory) also act as a deterrent to killing the carnivores because they must remain alive to breed and produce the animals the Sami are paid for.
Zabel and Holm-Muller surveyed Sami villages to discover how they decide on allocation methods for the money within their villages. They write:
The questionnaire results revealed that in 13 villages (62%), all members collectively decide on the use and distribution of the performance payments. In 4 villages (19%) an elected committee makes this decision. The remaining 4 villages had other modalities. Concerning the frequency of the decisions, 13 (62%) of the villages annually decide on the use of their conservation performance payments. Three villages only discuss revisions of their rules if someone submits a proposal to change the current system. In 5 villages (24%) the decision has only been made once since the implementation of the performance-payment scheme in 1996. Nevertheless, none of the respondents in these 5 villages mentioned that they were aware of unsatisfied members. These results suggest that many villages are flexible and adapt and revise their institutions to suit current circumstances.
The researchers also probed to see how the villages dealt with the burden upon individuals of inequitable carnivore attacks. They found that in 67 percent of the villages, the carnivore attacks were reported to be equitable (they shared grazing pastures and were equally exposed); but in 33 percent of the villages, unequal attacks occurred because not everyone used the same pastures. In the villages with equal exposure to attacks, the money was spent collectively on community needs. In the villages with unequal exposure to attacks, some of the money was allocated directly to individuals who suffered greater losses. When money was given to an individual, it was in proportion to the number of animals the herder owned (not the number of animals she or he lost to predation).
The researchers stop short of saying the Swedish example is working. Conservation performance payments were begun there in 1996, and at first the total number of funds disbursed was capped. Then in 2000, it changed to a system of paying for the carnivore offspring, the paper says. Not enough data is collected yet to know the conservation outcome, the researchers say. But they do venture so far as to say that “the internal management in most of the surveyed Sami villlages creates favorable conditions for the functioning of such a scheme.” Which is a lot more than we can say for any of the compensation programs in the U.S. that I know of. (Please leave a comment if you know of one that is working well.)
Implementing this in the U.S. would be different though. For one thing, Sweden’s socialist society makes it easier socially and politically to essentially redistribute wealth by amassing funds through taxes on the population and then funding carnivore conservation whereby only one people group (the Sami) benefits financially from it. In our capitalist society, I think this would likely have to be restructured into a framework where environmental groups worked to raise the necessary funds, and then these funds would either be transferred to state or local governments for disbursement, or they would be disbursed by the environmental groups themselves. (There would be a stigma either way, as many conservative, rural citizens dislike accepting “handouts” from the government and/or from environmental groups. At least, they publicly decry these “handouts,” though many seem willing to take them.)
The scale of the Swedish case study versus gray wolf reintroduction in the U.S. is also very different. Only about 20,000 Sami live in Sweden and of these, only about 2,500 herd reindeer. I’ve never seen an estimate for the thousands of livestock producers and rural citizens directly affected by wolf reintroductions in the U.S., but I’m willing to bet it’s at least one order of magnitude larger than 20,000. (Two orders?)
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post, you probably feel pretty strongly about wolf conservation in the lower-48. So tell me, what do you think of this idea?
ZABEL, A., & HOLM-MÜLLER, K. (2008). Conservation Performance Payments for Carnivore Conservation in Sweden Conservation Biology, 22 (2), 247-251 DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00898.x
LISA NAUGHTON-TREVES, REBECCA GROSSBERG, ADRIAN TREVES (2003). Paying for Tolerance: Rural Citizens’ Attitudes toward Wolf Depredation and Compensation Conservation Biology, 17 (6), 1500-1511
VYNNE, S. (2009). Livestock Compensation for the Mexican Gray Wolf: Improving Tolerance or Increasing Tension? Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 14 (6), 456-457 DOI: 10.1080/10871200902978148
Unpublished data collected during my master’s research and written up in my thesis (available as a PDF here).