CFAES Give Today

School of Environment and Natural Resources


Slagle Dissertation

Social and Psychological Drivers of Public Involvement in Large Carnivore Management

Kristina Slagle, PhD

Advisor:  Robyn Wilson


Large predators are returning to ecosystems in the U.S., and their conservation is an ongoing, perhaps symbolically-driven challenge for wildlife agencies. Current research on public tolerance of carnivores is limited by scale, little theoretical direction, and difficult to replicate measures. Addressing the issue of symbolic meaning, we coded qualitative responses to an open ended survey question regarding salient thoughts and images of wolves for concrete and abstract content. We found that most respondents think of wolves abstractly, though residents of the Northern Rocky Mountains were almost evenly split between abstract vs. concrete thoughts about wolves, and individuals strongly identifying as hunters, gun rights advocates, property rights advocates, or farmer/rancher were more likely to think of wolves concretely. Next, we address existing limitations in current research with two studies that bring theories of risk and decision making to bear on policy-relevant behaviors indicating stewardship and intolerance for wildlife. Modeling wolves as a hazard, we consider the impact of affect, knowledge, risk and benefit on tolerance for wolves among an issue public. We found both stewardship and intolerant behaviors to be well predicted by our model among this sample (r2 > .85), and in particular, we found affect for wolves and perceived benefits of recovery to be the most predictive of behavior. In a public sample, a modified hazard model poorly predicts intolerance, but predicted 22% of the variance in stewardship, driven primarily by perceived benefits, which were in turn predicted by trust in the managing agency and positive affect for wolves. Together, these studies indicate some potentially motivated reasoning among the issue public, whose behavioral intentions were largely predicted either directly or indirectly by affect, and emphasize the overall importance of benefits in predicting tolerance. Conflict over carnivore management will require more than simple outreach to the public for resolution. Trusted agencies leveraging perceptions of benefit might increase tolerance for carnivore conservation, but addressing concrete risks among those with more negative affect will still be necessary. This research suggests that where the wild things will be is where there is a holistic approach to stakeholder engagement.