Researchers: facts alone are not enough in the debate about wolves

May 7, 2016 - 05:31

People's experience of predators must also be taken into account.

The new study shows that people's views on the wolf, and animals with which they are considered to be in conflict, depend on their knowledge, experience, livelihoods and local environment. (Photo: Per Løchen, NTB Scanpix)

Wolves and other predators are back after having been practically wiped out in Norway, as well as in continental Europe generally. But do predators have a place in Norway?

In a study from the University of Stavanger (UiS), researchers have taken a new approach to understanding more about human conflicts with predators. They have concluded that facts alone are not enough with regard to this issue. People's experience of wolves and other predators must also be taken into account.

"The conflict surrounding the management of wolves and other predators is deadlocked. A good understanding of what the conflict is about is important to achieve better management of predators", says UiS Associate Professor Morten Tønnessen.

He is a philosopher and biosemiotics specialist with expertise in relations between humans and animals. Tønnessen has been researching wolves since 2007. He carried out the study with Paul J. Thibault, Professor in Linguistics and Media Communication at the University of Agder (UiA). For this study, they interviewed people in Kristiansand, Stavanger and Rendalen in Hedmark county and Kautokeino in Finnmark.

The study shows that individuals' views on wolves, and animals with which they are considered to be in conflict, depend on people's knowledge, experience, livelihoods and local environment. It also reveals that context strongly influences people's interpretation of images, sounds and video clips of wolves and other animals.

This case study is a sub-project of the Norwegian-Estonian research project Animals in changing environments, a collaboration between UiS and the University of Tartu in Estonia. The main theme is how man-made environmental changes are affecting animal habitats. 

The wolf as a symbol

Among the five large predators in Norway—the bear, the wolf, the wolverine, the lynx and the golden eagle—the wolf has a special place. This finding is not an unexpected, according to the two researchers. In Tønnessen's doctoral thesis in 2011, he described how the wolf in Norway—and in a number of other countries—has become a symbol for predators in general.

When predators kill a sheep, most people automatically think of wolves. In reality, however, the wolf accounts for only 7% of the sheep that are believed to have been killed by predators between 2010 and 2014. According to figures from the predator tracking system, Rovbase.no, other predators accounted for the remaining 93% of the killings.

Opposition to the wolf appears to be greater than towards the other predators that do more harm than the wolf. So why is that?

"Controversy regarding wolves is not just about what the wolf actually does but what the wolf symbolises for people", says Tønnessen.

The symbolism connected to wolves and sheep goes all the way to the Bible. Besides being a symbol of freedom and strength, the wolf is also a symbol of nature as violent and threatening, while the sheep symbolises something innocent that must be protected.

Later, the wolf also became associated with wickedness and uncontrolled hunger, says Tønnessen. 

Film clips and images

The participants in the study, who came from different places in Norway, were interviewed about relevant themes connected to predators. Film clips and images of predators in different situations were also shown. The participants were asked to explain what they saw on the screen, without being aware of the context in which the image or film was shot.

The researchers were able to study the participants' reactions to images and film clips through what the participants said and from their body language and facial expressions. The researchers paid particular attention to people's expressions and gestures.

"Body language constitutes the greatest part of human communication. What we say is just a small part of what we are communicating. That's why we wanted to study people's body language as an extra source of information," says Tønnessen.

Demographics are important

So how do people react to the wolf?

Opinions ranged widely, from those who defended illegal wolf hunting to those who would like there to see more wolves. When the films and images were being shown, the participants' body language varied from place to place and from person to person. According to the study, even individuals opposed to wolves may have a lot of respect and admiration for the wolf as a hunter.

Facts

Norwegian predator facts

In the winter of 2014-15, figures from Rovdata, an independent provider of monitoring data and predator stock numbers, showed that about 75 wolves were fully or partly based in Norway.

By comparison, there are 350 lynx and about the same number of wolverines.

Last year 136 brown bears and 6 litters were recorded.

Some of those opposed to wolves imitated the wolf's movements when asked to describe how, for example, it jumped a moose before the rest of the wolf pack took their turn.

People's occupations and hobbies also have a bearing on how they regard the wolf and other predators.

The researchers saw evidence that the more participants undertook physical activities outdoors and benefitted directly from nature's resources, for example, as farmers or hunters, the more expressive or active their body language was during the tests in the study. It was also among these participants that the researchers found the most opposition to predators. Opposition to predators was particularly strong in Kautokeino.

Cultural portrait

All the participants were very knowledgeable about at least one animal species. For example, people in Kautokeino were very knowledgeable about reindeer, and in Rendalen people knew a lot about hunting moose.

Regardless of their backgrounds, everyone was capable of misinterpreting what they saw on the screen. This occured with images, sounds or video clips of predators where participants were not aware of the context in which the recording had been made.

One image of three wolves with a person in the foreground was interpreted in highly different ways.

Most people saw two wolves and interpreted the third wolf as prey or possibly a fox. One person thought that the animals in the image were not wolves at all. The interpretation varied greatly as to whether the wolves were hostile or whether they were play-fighting.

One participant thought that the fiercest wolf was looking threateningly at the person in the image. Participants perceived the person as being everything from a young girl to an adult man or woman. This was significant with regard to how the situation with the wolf was being interpreted.

"The difference in attitudes towards predators also says something about how people live in nature and society", says Tønnessen.

"In those areas where wolf management is controversial, agriculture and hunting are much more important to the local economy than in other parts of Norway."

Dog versus wolf

Many moose hunters have negative attitudes towards wolves because of conflict between hunting dogs and wolves. In many areas, hunters have stopped hunting with dogs. The hunting dogs seek out the wolves, but the wolf regards the dog as an intruder and goes on the attack.

"Generally speaking, we can say that there are two different points of view of nature: the one in the countryside which regards nature as something to be utilised, and the more romantic view of nature more common in urban areas," Tønnessen explains.

He adds that since wolves have arrived in Østmarka near Oslo, those opposed to wolves in rural areas can no longer say that it is easy for townsfolk to be pro-wolf because they don't live near them.

"To solve the conflict around wolves and other predators, people's future situations need to be secure, and their views and identities must be taken seriously," the researchers conclude.

This study was presented at the international conference Animals in the Anthropocene: Human-animal relations in a changing semiosphere at the University of Stavanger in mid-September 2015. The study is to be published in the book Semiotic methods in the study of human-animal interactions by Tartu University Press in spring 2016. Research Assistant Laura Kiiroja together and the two researchers contributed to this study.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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