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How politics, public perception played into the vote to reintroduce wolves

Study shows campaign against Proposition 114 nearly succeeded
Two studies by researchers with Colorado State University have opened a window into the motivations and demographics behind Colorado’s 2020 vote to reintroduce wolves. The studies show that public support for wolves fell in the months leading up to the election and political affiliation drove voters more than any other factor. Observations from environmental advocates and ranchers in Southwest Colorado back up the findings. (Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service, AP file)

Two recent studies by scientists at Colorado State University show how politics and public perception shaped the 2020 vote to reintroduce wolves in Colorado.

Researchers with CSU’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence published the studies earlier this year in the journals Ecological Applications and Conservation Science and Practice. They revealed the factors that swayed voters to support or oppose the reintroduction of wolves, finding that public perception changed dramatically in the months leading up to the vote, and that political affiliation heavily influenced voters.

The studies demonstrate the important role that politics play in conservation. And in Southwest Colorado, their findings ring mostly true.

“(Wolf reintroduction) was a political issue, but at the same time there were multiple factors,” said Gary Skiba, wildlife program manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental advocacy group based in Southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico. “It wasn’t in my mind rural-urban or conservative-liberal. There were other things playing into it.”

A shift in public support

A group of researchers led by Rebecca Niemiec, an assistant professor in the Warner College of Natural Resources at CSU, published “Rapid Changes in Public Perception Toward a Conservation Initiative” in February after surveying voters before and after the 2020 election, when voters approved the reintroduction of wolves to Colorado by a slim margin of just 1.8%.

Niemiec and the authors found that support for wolves decreased in the year leading up to the 2020 election, though not enough to change the outcome of the vote.

In an August 2019 survey, 84% of Colorado residents who responded said they supported the reintroduction of wolves. But in another survey immediately after the election in 2020 only 64.1% of those who responded supported reintroduction efforts.

Researchers noted that their results still overestimated those in favor of wolves because Proposition 114, which required Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce and manage gray wolves by the end of 2023, passed with only 50.9% of the vote.

A gray wolf is captured on a camera trap in Colorado’s Moffat County in August 2021 by Working Circle, a Colorado group working on the coexistence of ranchers and wolves. In an August 2019 survey, 84% of Colorado residents who responded said they supported wolf reintroduction. In another survey immediately after the 2020 election, only 64.1% of those who responded supported reintroduction efforts. Researchers with Colorado State University have pinpointed information campaigns and media coverage as likely drivers behind the decline in support. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

“We found that specific beliefs about the negative impacts of wolves increased and beliefs about the positive impacts of wolves decreased,” Niemiec and the researchers wrote.

The declining trend in support was something that Skiba and other wildlife advocates noticed in the lead-up to the election.

Two specific concerns raised by residents of Southwest Colorado and across the state contributed to the waning support, he said.

“The two pieces that kept coming up were that there were already wolves in Colorado, so why are we going to spend the money to reintroduce wolves? And then also it seemed like there was an increasing concern about potential impacts on big-game populations,” he said.

The research of Niemiec and the CSU scientists supports what Skiba and wildlife advocates were hearing and seeing on the ground.

They found that the beliefs that wolves were already in Colorado, that reintroduction was a waste of money and that wolves would harm deer and elk populations were three of the top five reasons why Colorado residents opposed the reintroduction of wolves.

A pack of wolves was found in northwest Colorado the year before the election, the researchers said.

J. Paul Brown, an Ignacio rancher, expressed similar sentiments in questioning why voters ultimately supported the reintroduction of wolves.

“To me, the wolves are already here, so how do you reintroduce something that’s already in Colorado? We’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars and even if we didn’t introduce one wolf we’re going to deal with wolves,” he said.

Those who voted in favor of reintroduction most often cited the ecological benefits of wolves and moral responsibility of returning the animals to their historic range as the reasons for their support, the study said.

Wildlife advocates used both to bolster their efforts, Skiba said.

“Wolves are a species that we eliminated that belong here and that had a lot of effects,” he said. “We know that wolves are a part of our natural heritage and that they should be here, so that was our message.”

The CSU researchers concluded that both media and information campaigns likely contributed to the growing opposition to wolves.

Media outlets often portrayed wolves negatively, with reporters most frequently covering the impacts of wolves on ranchers in the lead-up to the election, the study said.

In their postelection survey, researchers not only found that most people used the news to make their decision about the wolf reintroduction, but that the most common reason for voting against wolves was the negative impact on ranchers, a message media outlets reiterated throughout 2019.

Steve McClung, an assistant area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, speaks with residents about wolf reintroduction at an open house at Fort Lewis College in July 2021. Proposition 114 passed with a vote of 50.9% in 2020. The ballot initiative requires Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce and manage gray wolves on the Western Slope by the end of 2023. (Durango Herald file)

The Stop the Wolf Coalition led by the Colorado Farm Bureau and hunting and agricultural groups and other information campaigns against wolves also influenced voters, according to the study.

Brown and Southwest Colorado ranchers worked with the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association, the La Plata County Farm Bureau and other statewide organizations such as the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association on voter outreach.

Those efforts made a difference, Brown said.

“I absolutely think it was (successful),” he said. “They did a good job of educating folks, and I think when people are educated, they actually vote pretty well.”

Skiba also watched the Stop the Wolf Coalition and anti-wolf information campaigns sway public support.

“They did a heck of a good job. Their messaging was working,” he said. “If it had been another month or two, it’s possible we would have lost as close as it was.”

The politics of conservation and science

Another team of CSU researchers led by Mark Ditmer, a former postdoctoral fellow with the Warner College of Natural Resources and current research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, published a second study in January that broke down the demographics that influenced how Colorado residents voted on the 2020 conservation initiative.

In “Socio-Ecological Drivers of Public Conservation Voting,” Ditmer and the authors concluded that location, age and elk hunting all shaped how residents cast their vote.

In a January 2022 study about the factors that influenced voters to support or oppose the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado, Colorado State University researchers concluded the 2020 vote showed the politicization of science and conservation. However, science and conservation are inherently political, said Gary Skiba, wildlife program manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental advocacy group based in Southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico. Instead, the researchers captured the polarization of science and conservation, Skiba said. (Adobe Stock)

Voters who were older, lived on the Western Slope and closer to the state’s one pack of wolves in northwest Colorado, and were elk hunters were more likely to vote against the reintroduction of wolves.

“We found that votes in favor of wolf restoration tended to be positively associated with younger, more urban populations and negatively associated with elk hunters and proximity to current wolves and proposed wolf restoration,” the authors wrote.

But their most significant finding was that political affiliation most closely determined voter support for wolves. Coloradans who voted for President Joe Biden were much more likely to support wolves than those who voted for former President Donald Trump.

The area around Durango stretching north to San Juan, Ouray and San Miguel counties had the highest rates of support for wolves in Southwest Colorado, the study showed.

According to the researchers, the study highlighted the important role that politics plays in conservation and the growing politicization of science.

Brown and Skiba agreed. Both viewed Colorado’s wolf reintroduction vote as a political referendum as much as anything else.

Brown argued it was Democratic voters who supported wolves and ultimately pushed the conservation initiative through.

“It’s conservative versus communism. It’s absolutely like that,” Brown said.

Skiba maintained that conservation is always political, noting that voting, as in the case of Proposition 114, is a political act. He said the researchers had actually shown not the politicization of science, but the growing polarization of Republicans and Democrats on science and conservation.

“All those issues are political and will continue to be,” he said. “To the extent that we on the conservation side need to keep pushing things, we will. It’s what we have to do if we want to see what we think is the right thing to do.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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