As wolves gain prominence in the northern Rockies and management policies evolve to keep the populations in check, researchers are tracking the shifting social dynamics surrounding Montanans’ complex attitudes toward a species that is both reviled and revered.
According to a new survey conducted cooperatively by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the University of Montana, attitudes and beliefs about wolves and wolf management have generally grown more tolerant. Distributed three times – in 2012, 2017 and 2023 – the survey is aimed at providing insights to wildlife managers and officials tasked with making decisions on wolf management.
“We know people have complicated views and values on wolves, which is reflected in the results of the survey and the trends we see,” Quentin Kujala, FWP chief of conservation policy, stated in a press release announcing the latest survey’s findings. “It’s important for us and our partners at the University to continue research like this because how stakeholders feel about wildlife and its management is a critical awareness for FWP to have.”
The survey was sent to 10,000 residents categorized into four groups: deer and elk hunters, landowners, the general population, and wolf hunters and trappers. Most of the questions asked people to rate their tolerance on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 being very intolerant, 5 being very tolerant). Survey results have a margin of error of 3.7% for the general population and less for other groups.
Results showed an increasing tolerance for wolves on the landscape, particularly among deer and elk hunters and the general population. In 2023, 74% of the general population was tolerant or very tolerant of wolves, up from 50% in 2017 and 41% in 2012.
“I think these results show that as Montanans have lived with wolves for the past 10 or more years, their attitudes and tolerance toward wolves are increasing, but support for hunting and lethal control also remains high,” said Dr. Alex Metcalf, a UM associate professor and co-director of the Human Dimensions Lab in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.
Wolf hunting in Montana enjoys a high level of positive views among all groups but is seeing a decline in tolerance from the general population. The most recent survey showed that 82% of deer and elk hunters, 86% of landowners, and 100% of wolf hunters and trappers are tolerant or very tolerant of wolf hunting. That number for the general population was 58%, down from 71% in 2012.
“Overall, this shows that Montanans are supportive of wolf hunting, but within the general population that support might be waning,” said Justin Gude, a research administrator with FWP.
Support for wolf regulations also was a mixed bag, with lower support from landowners and the general population (3 and 2.6 respectively on the 1-to-5 tolerance scale) than among deer and elk hunters or wolf hunters and trappers (3.4 and 3.5 on the tolerance scale, respectively).
Support for wolf trapping is lower and declining among the general population, down to an average score of 2.7 from 2.9 in 2017. Support for wolf trapping is still relatively high among the other groups surveyed, with scores of 3.9 to 4.8.
“The unique opportunity that these survey data provide is to give us a better understanding of the entire population of Montanans as well as these sub-groups of landowners, wolf hunters and trappers,” Metcalf, the UM professor who helped administer the survey and analyze the latest results, said Thursday. “When you go to public meetings on proposed management actions, you often hear from people who are very passionate about the issue. But it’s good to include a mix of views from the general population, and our survey methods and their tight confidence intervals allow us to know that what we are hearing is not anecdotal, but more broadly representative of that general population. We have a pretty high confidence that this is how average Montanans feel about these issues.”
On questions of general satisfaction with wolf management in Montana, the survey shows moderately low levels of satisfaction. The highest group was general residents with 33% saying they were satisfied or very satisfied with wolf management in the state. The lowest satisfaction was among landowners, at only 20.5%, who said they were satisfied or very satisfied.
The question of confidence in FWP to manage wolves also was varied. The highest confidence was among deer and elk hunters, with 45% saying they were confident or very confident in FWP’s ability to manage wolves. The lowest confidence was from landowners and the wolf hunters and trappers, who said their confidence in FWP’s ability to manage wolves was 17.2% and 18% respectively.
Other results and insights from the survey will be available in the future as results are published by the researchers in scientific journals.
“Montanans have a nuanced view of wolves and wolf management in the state,” Metcalf said. “There are improving attitudes toward wolves in the state, there is increasing tolerance of wolves. But a majority of Montanans support a wolf hunting season and a slightly larger majority support preventative lethal control of wolves. We tend to call that ‘conditional support.’ We might like wolves, we might be okay with wolves on the landscape, but in situations where they cause damage or conflict or could cause damage or conflict, we want to see them controlled and managed.”
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