When emotion drives the wolf debate, research suffers


By Steve Bunk, 1-27-11

All the information out there, informed and uninformed, surely has raised awareness that wolves are important to many of us, whether by their presence or absence. But how good are we at recognizing and using accurate information to shape our opinions?

As a former science journalist, what’s become clear in the cacophony regarding wolves in the West is that where emotion rules, research should.

For six years, I wrote about biological research for scientific trade journals. I can’t use a Bunsen burner or a radio collar to save my life, but one thing I did learn is how the scientific method works. Through countless interviews with scientists across this country and around the world, I came to understand that the way scientists analyze and try to solve problems is much different from how you and I might do it.

Their method, developed over centuries, has definable steps, builds upon what others have done, and causes changes in accepted thinking that often occur very slowly, against great resistance. Good science is inherently a conservative endeavor. If a study method is flawed, its results can be questioned.

For example, the number of individuals in a given study could be too small to provide a statistically significant result. The study might not last long enough, or it could have inadequate follow-up. Perhaps there are no controls, such as groups that are not treated, say, with an experimental drug, or are unaffected by some other situation being investigated.

Any number of other shortcomings can make the results of a study debatable. The public should have a general awareness of such things. If it’s technical, we don’t expect to understand all of it, but we sure can look for the presence or absence of key indicators.

When you look at all the talk about wolves, relatively little of it concerns the most well-informed, rigorous, reliable information we have.

Some of the world’s leading scientific research on wolves has come from universities in the Rocky Mountains. One needs to look no farther than Montana State University at Bozeman, where ecologists have produced a complex and subtle picture of elk-wolf interactions.

For years, these researchers studied five elk populations and monitored wolves. Among many discoveries, they learned that concentrations of the female hormone progesterone are lower in elk where wolves are more numerous, and that these lower concentrations correspond to fewer calves born. This revelation, which indicates that the mere presence of wolves can affect elk reproduction, is one of several “risk effects,” which are a unifying theme of the group’s multifaceted research. In this case, the risk effect is that while elk change their behavior to avoid predation by wolves—including where they graze and how much nutrition they subsequently get—these changes also can carry costs to the welfare of the species. 

The Montana group’s leader, ecology professor Scott Creel, won the 2010 Carl Gustaf Bernhard Medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for this work. Yes, the same group that awards several of the Nobel Prizes. Yet for many folks, the take-away message of Creel’s research was that he seemed to be anti-wolf. After all, his work showed that wolves scare elk into the mountains, where the cows sometimes can’t get enough good nutrition to produce offspring.

Late last year, Creel the wolf-hater became Creel the wolf-lover. It began when he and Jay J. Rotella published a scientific paper in September that analyzed the relationship between gray wolf populations and human killings of the animals. The paper mentions that under a hunting proposal submitted to the federal government by Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the state’s wolf population would incur a decline “substantially greater” than the 13 percent predicted by the agency.

In December, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported it had obtained a copy of a letter from an FWP official to the university’s president complaining about Creel’s findings.  The official, Dave Risley, who heads the agency’s Fish and Wildlife Division in Helena, later complained to a reporter that Creel had not contacted FWP researchers when “selectively” using the agency’s data in his study, and charged a lack of professional integrity. The university backed Creel’s peer-reviewed work.

The paper is a meta-analysis, which means it uses established statistical methods to examine all the relevant, scientific data on wolf population growth, total wolf deaths and those deaths caused by humans. What Creel and Rotella discovered was that the prevailing opinion, among not only governmental authorities but also other wildlife biologists, concerning how many wolves could be killed by humans without destabilizing a given population was higher than that indicated by the data. The study is a tool for wolf management.

The biologist who is also an accomplished statistician is rare. The paper by Creel and Rotella ends with a reminder relevant to this point. “Finally,” it says, “these results highlight the ongoing need to fully incorporate quantitative analysis of available data in the development of conservation and management policies.”

The misunderstanding by the general public of these scientists’ work is far from unusual. Scientists are the best sources of information about the world around us, yet too often what they discover and report is drowned in a flood of poorly informed opinion. If we want to understand wolves, and not just emote about them, we have to understand what the biologists are learning. That’s discernment. That’s what wise consumption of information should be about.

You can get opinion at the coffee shop with your doughnut, and it can be fun to have. But if we vilify scientists because what they discover doesn’t suit our preconceptions, then our amazing access to information nowadays becomes threatened by the curse of irrelevance.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Originally posted at NewWest.net