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Wolves: Love Them or Hate Them?

Results from recent survey finds growing wolf tolerance among Montana residents

A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park stares into photographer Ben Bluhm's lens. May 2022. Results from a recent survey indicate that tolerance for wolves among Montana residents is growing. Photo by Ben Bluhm
A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park stares into photographer Ben Bluhm's lens. May 2022. Results from a recent survey indicate that tolerance for wolves among Montana residents is growing. Photo by Ben Bluhm
by Julia Barton

Conversations about wolves and their management yields varying opinions among Montanans. While some folks believe the keystone species to be rightful tenants of the land, others see wolves as a danger and a nuisance, and seek to eradicate them.

According to recent survey results, however, it appears opinions on wolves in the Treasure State aren’t as polarizing as they’re often made out to be. What’s more: state residents are increasingly tolerant of wolves on the landscape, despite remaining supportive of hunting and lethal control.

The survey, issued by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in collaboration with the University of Montana, was conducted last year as part of a long-term project assessing wolf tolerance across the state. FWP first administered the survey in 2012 following wolves’ delisting from the Endangered Species Act the previous year, and again in 2017 in partnership with the university.
"The polarization that we hear [about wolves in Montana] ... is really not reflected in the data. We have a lot more agreement in the state than you would think.” – Dr. Alex Metcalf, Human Dimensions Lab, University of Montana
The 3,405 respondents were categorized as general residents, landowners (residents with at least 160 acres of rural land), wolf hunters and trappers, and elk and deer hunters. Overall tolerance toward wolves increased among each of those groups over the last decade.

“​​At the same time, support for wolf hunting remains pretty high,” UM associate professor Dr. Alex Metcalf told Mountain Journal, referring to the nearly 60 percent of residents who support hunting wolves. “It might be counterintuitive, because most of the discourse that we hear around wolves and wolf management come from those polarized extremes … but these data show that the majority of people in the state hold both of those views at the same time.”

Metcalf, who teaches courses on human interactions with the environment, explained that this attitude of appreciating wildlife while also supporting hunting exists in a similar survey conducted about grizzly bears. Those with polarizing opinions are often the ones speaking up, and the survey helps define what the middle ground actually looks like.
As part of the FWP-UM study, this graph indicates that tolerance for wolves in Montana is growing among various groups. Courtesy Alex Metcalf, UM Human Dimensions Lab.
As part of the FWP-UM study, this graph indicates that tolerance for wolves in Montana is growing among various groups. Courtesy Alex Metcalf, UM Human Dimensions Lab.
“Most of the issues that we asked about, we already knew people felt strongly one way or another,” said Justin Gude, research administrator with FWP. “We hear about that via public meetings or public comment, but the survey allows us to gauge in general how people feel and what proportion feel this way or that way. We can get a level of accuracy that we can't get from other means of public input.”

The survey also revealed that Montana residents in each category are largely unsatisfied with wolf management, although the state last year issued its first revised wolf management plan in two decades. Data from this survey is presented to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to help inform hunting and trapping seasons and quotas, according to Gude.

Other notable takeaways included a majority support in lethal control among all groups, along with declining support for wolf trapping, particularly among general residents.

“We see a lot of central tendency in the data,” Metcalf said. “So, the polarization that we hear, that we read about in the newspaper and receive public meanings, is really not reflected in the data. We have a lot more agreement in the state than you would think.”

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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