The Importance of Values in Wildlife Governance

Values play a key but seldom recognized role in wildlife decisions. Values–what people believe is important and ethical–underlie every decision about how wild animals should be treated. Science is important, of course, and should inform decisions as well. But science has limitations when it comes to making policy. Science, for example, can tell you how many mountain lions can be killed by hunters before a population will begin to decline, but science cannot tell you whether mountain lions should be hunted in the first place. That is a value-based decision.

Despite their importance, values are rarely explicitly acknowledged in wildlife governance. When wildlife advocates express opinions that are contrary to the status quo based on their values, they are often dismissed as being “emotional” and “unscientific.” Criticisms like this fail to recognize that the status quo in wildlife management is itself based on a set of values.

Increasingly, the values embedded in the system are out of step with the general public. Wildlife managers and hunters hold much different values than the general public.

The 2018 landmark America’s Wildlife Values report identified four types of value orientations towards wildlife based on national and regional survey data from 2004 and 2018:

UTILITARIAN/TRADITIONALIST: This type is characterized by a view of human mastery over wildlife and a prioritization of human well-being over wildlife. Specifically, utilitarians believe wildlife should be managed for human benefit.

MUTUALIST: This type views wildlife as caplable of relationships of trust with humans. Mutualists believe that humans and wildlife are meant to co-exist or live in harmony, and thus wildlife deserve rights similar to the rights of humans.

PLURALIST: This type possesses both value orientations. Expression of one or the other orientation is situational.

DISTANCED: This type lacks a well formed wildlife value orientation, indicating less interest in wildlife-related issues.

The authors found that among the general public, Mutualists (35 percent) outnumbered Traditionalists (28%), Pluralists (21%) and Distanced (15%). They also found that between 2004 and 2018, the number of Mutualists in the western states grew by 4.7% while Traditionalists declined by about the same number (5.7%). However, while Mutualists comprised more than one-third of the general population, they represented only 8% of state wildlife agency employees. Likewise, hunters were much more likely to be Traditionalists (38%) or Pluralists (33%) than Mutualists (9%).