When wolves and livestock, or pets, come into conflict with each other, people’s tolerance for wolves on the landscape tends to decrease. Part of the problem is the economic loss to the livestock producer, so some predator conservation organizations offer compensation payments for wolf-killed livestock as a tool to increase tolerance for wolves. Additional reasons to offer compensation include attempting to reduce retaliatory killing of wolves, and an opportunity for the public to share the burden of wolf recovery.
Whether or not compensation is an effective tool is debatable. A survey study in Wisconsin investigated whether or not compensation for wolf depredation of livestock or pets increased rural citizen’s tolerance for wolves (Naughton-Treves, Grossberg and Treves 2003). The researchers found that although all the participants approved of compensation as a management strategy, it did not necessarily increase tolerance of wolves on an individual basis, and that most who had lost livestock or pets believed the payments in themselves to be “inadequate, given the emotion and years invested in each animal” (Ibid, pg. 1509). The researchers also found that an individual’s social group (whether a bear hunter, or a sheep farmer or a rancher) had a greater influence on their attitudes toward wolves than did individual experiences with wolves, leading them to conclude that “attitudes are not highly sensitive to wolf numbers and depredation frequencies” (Ibid). This is interesting because it suggests a belief pattern independent of immediate facts about wolves or experiences with wolf conflicts. A second study suggests that an unintended negative effect of compensation payments may be that such programs worsen wildlife conflicts by decreasing efforts to prevent the conflicts in the first place (Bulte and Rondeau 2005).
Frequently, in the U.S., we look to compensation programs to help shore up support for large carnivore conservation in areas where livestock producers are thought to be affected negatively by these predators’ presence. I’ve blogged in other posts about the effectiveness of different types of carnivore compensation programs, but the heart of the matter goes beyond dollars and cents. Another dimension we have to consider when studying how to gain tolerance for carnivore conservation is the human dimension. What do carnivores mean to people? How do people create meaning and attach meaning to different animals?
The most instrumental study to me personally in understanding this side of the equation came out of southeastern Norway. “A Wolf at the Gate: The Anti-Carnivore Alliance and the Symbolic Construction of Community,” is a study that is little-known on this side of the Atlantic, as far as I can tell, and it is an absolute gem. It uses rigorous qualitative methods to interview social groups within a rural community, Stor-Elvdal (Big River Valley), of 3,000 people living in a forested, mountainous area covering a little more than 2,000 square kilometers. Stor-Elvdal is also a class-stratified community with some very wealthy land-owner residents, and less wealthy farmers, and loggers. The authors chose this community because four of Norway’s native predator species occur here: wolverines, lynx, brown bears and wolves. (Skogen and Krange 2003) However, of these, wolves had only recently recolonized the area (naturally) and their new presence had reawakened latent tensions about predators.
The researchers, Ketil Skogen and Olve Krange, sampled 88 informants of various ages, education backgrounds and social groups and used semi-structured, in-depth interviews to elicit information from the participants about their views on land use, their relationship to nature and local social relationships. The researchers found that while different subgroups within the community—land owners, hunters, sheep farmers, hunters and others—differed in opinions of land use and their perception of their relationship to the land, they all banded together in an “anti-carnivore alliance” (Ibid, pg. 318) which helped them symbolically construct their community and what constituted threats against it (Ibid, pg. 323).
Skogen and Krange found that the anti-carnivore sentiments clustered around a cultural axis and a practical/economic axis. They found that these two axes touched in the community and had the effect of linking social groups that historically did not get along, specifically landowners and sheep farmers (who lease their land for hunting), and locals who identified strongly with traditional land uses, such as hunting, and came from working-class backgrounds.
Skogen and Krange conlcuded that community members, even from disparate non-allied social groups, joined together and perceived wolves in particular as a symbolic attack on their rural community — but not an attack by nature or wilderness. They actually perceived wolves as symbols of cities, because in recent years, it has been advocates from urban areas that push for wolf and carnivore conservation.
… the appearance of wolves is associated with cities and an urban conception of nature. In their minds, that is a romantic view based on a dream-like glorification of untouched nature, and it does not pay heed to actual consequences for real people. Through this construction, the wolf becomes an icon of urbanity. In the hunter’s world, that is the ultimate antagonism of the life they love. The wolves thus symbolise attacks on the community not from encroaching wilderness, as one might believe, but from cities. And that is why it is doubly important to reinforce the symbolic defence line, so that the arch-enemies are held at bay at all costs. (pg. 320)
The rural community’s antagonism had little to do, after all, with actual livestock damages, concerns of personal safety or competition for game animals. Rather, they perceived their community to be under siege by hostile and distant urban centers that wanted these animals protected; the “anti-carnivore front seems to be constructed as a last line of defence against destructive forces threatening rural life ‘ as we know it,” (pg. 309). They discuss how the community discussed women and children as vulnerable to wolves, which in effect frames the issue as an assault on the weakest members, making it even more cruel and inhumane in their view to entertain advocacy for carnivore conservation. They write that blaming actors outside of the community (the urbanites) is important to strengthen and reinforce internal cohesion to construct and define visible boundaries for their community..
What I like best about this study is that it explores, in a meta-cognition type of way, what ‘community’ means to different social groups within Stor-Elvdal, and it explores how these social groups give meaning the social construct of ‘community.’ It’s a richer, more detailed explanation than simply saying that wolves, or other large predators, are “symbols” and leaving it at that. Community does not have a single meaning, and wolves do not have a single meaning either — not when you really start looking at the stratified layers of our society and the inter-workings of social groups within the communities that compose that society.
This is where I’m reminded of a quote from Stephen Fritts et al.:
Ultimately, the wolf exists in the eye of the beholder. There is the wolf as science can describe it, but there is also the wolf that is the product of the human mind, a cultural construct—sometimes called the “symbolic wolf”—colored by our individual, cultural, or social conditioning (Lawrence 1993). This wolf is the sum total of what we believe about the animal, what we think it represents, and what we want and need it to be. To many, humans, this animal is the ultimate symbol of wilderness and environmental completeness. To others… it represents nature out of control, a world in which the rights and needs of rural people are subjugated by city-dwelling animal-lovers intent on imposing their conservation values on others (2003, pg. 290).
1. Portions of this post are excerpted from my 2008 master’s thesis.
Skogen, K., & Krange, O. (2003). A Wolf at the Gate: The Anti-Carnivore Alliance and the Symbolic Construction of Community Sociologia Ruralis, 43 (3), 309-325 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9523.00247
Fritts, S. H., R.O. Stephenson, R.D. Hayes, L. Boitani. 2003. Wolves and humans. In D. Mech and L. Boitani (eds.), Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, 289-316. USA: University of Chicago Press.
Naughton-Treves, L., R. Grossberg and A. Treves. 2003. Paying for tolerance: rural citizens’ attitudes toward wolf depredation and compensation. Conservation Biology. 17: 1500- 1511.
Bulte, E.H. and D. Rondeau. 2005. Why compensating for wildlife damages may be bad for conservation. Journal of Wildlife Management. 69: 14-19.