Of Wolves and People: The Science Behind Conservation Conflict Transformation

Of Wolves and People: The Science Behind Conservation Conflict Transformation

Conservation Northwest / Mar 15, 2018 / Ranching, Range Riding, Restoring Wildlife, Wolves

By Paula Swedeen, Ph.D., Policy Director

Wolves are making an inspiring comeback in Washington, returning to our state on their own paws from populations in British Columbia, Idaho and Montana beginning around the mid-2000’s.

In 2008, Conservation Northwest’s Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project discovered the first wolf pups born in Washington in nearly a century—the Lookout Pack in the Methow Valley. At the end of 2017 more than 122 wolves resided in the Evergreen State in approximately 22 packs, mostly in northeast Washington with a handful of packs in the North Cascades and the Blue Mountains of our state’s southeast corner.

Conservation Northwest believes Washington can be the state where wolf recovery, conservation, and management work in the long run; for people, wolves and all the Northwest’s wildlife. We’re committed to the goal of long-term recovery and public acceptance of wolves alongside thriving rural communities. But to achieve these goals it will continue to take hard work, respect and collaboration from stakeholders on all sides.

A gray wolf in Washington’s North Cascades. Photo: Craig Monnette. Used Under Agreement. All Rights Reserved.

While the return of wolves continues to evoke strong emotions, we think Washington has turned a corner, showing persistent growth in wolf numbers and improved indicators of social tolerance such as uptake of deterrence measures and reduced acrimony in the state legislature. Improvements have surged since 2015 when the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) brought in an experienced practitioner of Conservation Conflict Transformation to work with the diverse stakeholders involved in wolf conservation and the Wolf Advisory Group (WAG).

The most visible aspect of the WAG’s work to date has been development of formal protocols for preventing and mitigating chronic livestock depredations. Controversy inevitably erupts when wolves kill enough livestock to trigger a lethal response—some think lethal is never warranted and others want more wolves killed sooner. But that controversy over individual events masks the longer arc of change that participants in WAG are seeking for our communities.

Ironically, there are claims from both environmentalists and cattle groups that WAG agreements are about social engineering or political cover, and decisions are not science-based.

While the field science on whether lethal control is effective at stopping wolf depredations is contested, the scientific basis for the stakeholder processes fostered by the WAG is well-grounded in multiple disciplines of social science. Research shows that Conservation Conflict Transformation (CCT), the emerging label for this body of science and its implementation, produces long-term benefits through creating and maintaining genuine respectful relationships and making joint decisions based on increased understanding of the needs and values of all sides.

In short, respectful dialogue, a search for common-ground, and thoughtful collaboration provide more durable conservation results than acrimony, accusation, and litigation. In Washington, we see this process as having a higher probability of leading to lower human-caused wolf mortality over time than approaches which ignore or misread social dynamics that accompany wolf recovery.

Here is quick tour of the science behind conflict transformation and how it relates to wolf recovery:

The first premise is that destructive social conflict is not good for wildlife, including wolves (see also here and here) and other carnivores. Transforming that conflict into constructive dialogue can lead to better outcomes than actions that continue to perpetuate animosity.

The second is that intense conflict involving wildlife is often driven by deep-seated identity issues, or a failure to meet the basic human needs of some or all parties involved. Identity issues get inflamed when one group of people feel that core aspects of who they are as people or communities is being disrespected or repressed by another group. Conservation policies that do not take these deeper underlying social values into account tend to ultimately fail, even if there are short-term gains. This is the main thesis put forward in a paper by Madden and McQuinn (2014), Conservation’s Blind Spot, A Case for Conservation Conflict Transformation.

The Washington Wolf Advisory Group (WAG) during a field visit in the Teanaway Valley. Photo: Mitch Friedman, CNW

The third is that we live in complexly linked social and ecological systems, so understanding conflict requires a systems approach that takes complexity into account. Complexity means that conflicts can become intractable, solutions are never easy, and simplistic or one-sided policy prescriptions can have unintended consequences.

The roles of identity and other basic human needs in both driving and transforming conflict are well-documented in the peace-building, social psychology and neurology fields (see for example here , here, and here). Researchers and practitioners have found that creating settings where groups in conflict can discover, acknowledge, and affirm the dignity and validity of the “other” sets the foundation for easing or ending deep-seated social conflict. Consistent engagement, creating and maintaining trust (see Chapter 5) and working on projects that produce incrementally larger wins for everyone involved are all documented methods for transforming destructive conflict into constructive change.

Human Values, Human Needs

In addition to reports from field practitioners, there is empirical, experimental research that proves out the effectiveness of addressing human needs in conflicts. Here are just three samples:

Staub et al., 2005 conducted an experiment on the effects of interventions designed to help people reconcile and heal after the genocide in Rwanda. The authors conducted training courses for facilitators based on human needs theory and the specific needs and cultural context described by residents of Rwanda. They then conducted a formal experimental evaluation of their intervention. The tests showed that the intervention reduced measures of trauma and increased positive orientations towards the other group in statistically significant ways compared to groups that did not receive the intervention treatment. This is an important scientific demonstration of the positive effects of addressing basic human needs even under the extreme conditions of attempting to reconcile after genocide.

A rider on the range. Photo: Laura Owens
A range rider in the area of the Teanaway Wolf Pack. Photo: Laura Owens

Ginges et al., 2007 conducted an experimental field study in the Israeli occupied territories of Palestine to test how morally based values (sacred values) as compared to instrumental (material) values affect attitudes towards peace deals.  They found that among people for whom sacred values were part of their identity, proposals that included some material enhancement of the proposed settlement beyond moral values increased anger and a desire for violent reaction compared to the moral trade-off on its own. However, proposals that included each side giving up some aspect of their sacred values in proportion to what the other side gave up decreased outrage and the desire for violence. The results demonstrate that people with strongly held beliefs will opt for the potential of physical harm to themselves and their people, rather than give something up that speaks to their core, and that trying to solve such problems with practical bargaining over material gains could actually make things worse. This study provides experimental evidence that denigrating the core values of other people can exacerbate conflict. 

Rosler et al., 2015 used two experimental studies to assess the roles of empathy and hope in transforming conflict. They found that these are complementary and crucial emotions for preventing the escalation of conflict (empathy) and for developing creative solutions that lead to sustainable peace (hope). So, there is solid justification for seeking out constructive relationships that create a positive emotional environment with other groups with whom we disagree in order to reduce and transform conflict.

Social Science and Conservation

Another important body of research upon which Conservation Conflict Transformation is based involves the application of social psychology research directly to conservation.

DeCaro and Stokes (2008) found that the mechanisms which underlie successful participation in conservation activities require developing programs that include “open and democratic participation in management, support for autonomy and a sense of competence of those being asked to carry out conservation actions, and substantive affirmation of the identity of local stakeholders”. This suite of conditions is called an autonomy supportive environment, based on self-determination theory in social psychology.

This is in contrast to programs designed as top-down, imposed from entities outside the community, and/or that include punitive sanctions for non-compliance, or even financial rewards for taking conservation actions. Fundamental human needs, such as a sense of fairness in decision-making, the ability to live and take actions in line with one’s values (self-determination or freedom), and security all emerge as crucial for long-term conservation in this research, providing an independent line of evidence to what is found in the peace-building field.

Conservation Conflict Transformation in action. A 2017 chart showing growth in both Washington’s wolf population (blue) and the use of non-lethal conflict deterrence methods by livestock operators (red) in northeast Washington, Okanogan County and southeast Washington. Graph: WDFW

The assertion of the positive role of creating autonomy-supportive conditions for successful conservation outcomes has also been verified empirically in three recent studies. DeCaro et al., 2015 used a laboratory experiment, Epstein, 2017 analyzed a data set of forest resource users from four continents to test whether the laboratory setting from De Caro et al, 2015 held up in field conditions, and Cetas and Yasue 2017 conducted a systematic review of 120 peer-reviewed studies of factors that lead to success or failure of conservation projects in and around protected areas globally. All three of these papers found hard evidence showing that species and ecosystems are better conserved by supporting positive aspects of human behavior. 

Wolf advocates are asking ranchers and other residents of rural communities to live with wolves, which on occasion can cause damage to their livestock and pets, and adds more worries onto an increasingly challenging way to make a living. Some ranchers and rural residents may even perceive wolves as symbolic of larger threats to their values, community and heritage. At the same time, part of the ask is for ranchers and farmers to adopt non-lethal deterrence practices that are a change in the way most have had to live and work. These methods can be time consuming and expensive to implement, and can bring ostracism from members of the community whose identities are more challenged by the return of wolves.

The research above points to the need to create the conditions for adoption of non-lethal deterrents that support a sense of self-determination, ownership of initiative and ideas, and respect for the identity and self-worth of ranchers and other wildlife stakeholders. Imposing regulations proposed by people outside the community, or by people who express opposition to ranching or disdain for ranchers, would likely backfire due to the fundamental ways in which our brains are wired. Basing broader policies and tactics for wolf recovery from an ideological or culture war frame would likewise be predicted to fail at securing a resilient wolf population that is left in peace.

A rancher checking on cattle within the range of the Smackout Wolf Pack. Through our Range Rider Pilot Project, this ranch thoroughly employs proactive methods to coexist with wolves. Photo: Conservation Northwest

The return of wolves to Washington is layered on top of shrinking human populations and increased economic hardship in rural areas due to large scale global economic, demographic, and technological shifts. Job loss and diminished prospects for much of rural America has fed intense political polarization. Wolves have become a symbolic carrier of our current national dysfunction. Given all this weight and heat, using conservation approaches learned from the peace-building field and experimental social psychology makes a lot of sense.

The work Washingtonians are doing using Conservation Conflict Transformation is one of the rare arenas in which people are reaching across urban-rural and liberal-conservative divides to have genuinely civil dialogue aimed at joint problem-solving. Backed by sound science and a desire to see the long-term recovery and public acceptance of wolves alongside thriving rural communities, we’re committed to continuing this collaboration.


Learn more about our work for Washington’s wolves and coexistence between people and carnivores. Or consider becoming a member to support this vital work!