Public Perception About Wolf Reintroduction In Colorado
The public plays a significant role in impacting the success of conservation initiatives. For example, voting in favor of, or opposition to, an initiative or donating to a relevant organization can directly influence its outcome. Rapid changes in the public’s feelings towards an initiative can further influence whether it’s accepted, especially if public perceptions change while the initiative is underway.
Using a case study of Proposition 114 — a 2020 conservation ballot initiative to reintroduce gray wolves into Colorado — the authors of this study measured how public perceptions changed in the year leading up to the election. In a pre-election survey from 2019, 84% of voters indicated they would vote yes to support wolf reintroduction. However, in the actual election, the ballot initiative passed with a small margin of 50.9%. While the authors point out that this could have been due to sampling bias (e.g., the pre-election survey might have overrepresented people with a pro-wolf viewpoint), they also wonder how public opinion shifts played a role.
To explore how and why public sentiments may have changed, they compared results from the 2019 pre-election survey to official voting results from the 2020 election as well as self-reported voting behavior from a follow-up survey administered after the election. Interestingly, in the post-election survey, around 64% of voters said they voted in favor of the ballot initiative, which is still higher than the actual election results of 50.9% but lower than the 84% predicted in the pre-election survey. While both the pre- and post-election surveys overestimated the public’s support (by 65% and 26% respectively), the authors say the difference between these two estimates can be attributed to changes in voting behavior due to shifts in public perspectives from 2019 to 2020.
It seems that voting differed by demographic and identity. For example, voters who identified as animal guardians, wildlife advocates and animal rights advocates were more likely to support wolf introduction, while ranchers, hunters, gun rights advocates and property rights advocates were less supportive. Older respondents and those who lived in rural areas were also less supportive of the initiative, according to the post-election survey.
The post-election survey also asked respondents why they voted a certain way on the ballot initiative. The most common arguments against reintroducing wolves in Colorado were that it would impact farmed animals and agriculture, that it was unnecessary because wolves were already in Colorado, and that it would waste taxpayer money. The most popular arguments in favor of the initiative included the beliefs that it would improve the environment and ecological balance and that it was morally the right thing to do.
Several public perceptions shifted significantly between the pre- and post-election surveys. For example, while the public generally believed that reintroducing wolves would help with rodent control in 2019, the public generally disagreed with this in 2020. Meanwhile, the public disagreed that wolf reintroduction would result in large attacks on farmed animals and cause major elk and deer losses in 2019, but they agreed with this in 2020. Agreement with the beliefs that wolf reintroduction would increase tourism and balance deer and elk populations significantly increased the likelihood that someone would vote in favor of Proposition 114. However, agreement with the beliefs that reintroducing wolves would waste taxpayer money and cause ranchers to lose money significantly increased the likelihood that someone would vote against the proposition.
While the authors note that the pre-election survey in 2019 likely overrepresented certain demographics (like urban dwellers), there is no doubt that public opinion shifted quickly in the year before Proposition 114 was passed. They believe that people may have been influenced by media coverage — according to the post-election survey, the news was a common source of information about the ballot initiative, but other research found that the media generally covered wolf reintroduction in a negative light. Likewise, the authors believe voters were likely swayed by public outreach campaigns and the efforts of opposition groups.
Ballot initiatives can be an effective way to make change for animals, but it’s important to make sure journalists, policy-makers, and other community leaders have accurate and evidence-based information. Otherwise, there is a risk that opposition groups can capitalize on people’s fears and emotions to encourage the public to reject animal-friendly changes. Beyond providing facts and evidence, advocates should take things a step further by engaging with community groups to build trust and address the issues that matter most to them. This can help break down barriers, encourage transparency, and ultimately win supporters to the cause.