Trust me, I’m a wildlife biologist: Does the public trust wildlife agencies to manage wildlife?

By Phillip Rodgers, MS Candidate, Wildlife Ecology & Conservation Department

Trust is the fulcrum from which society pivots. We trust that our plastic water bottles, soda cans, and paper products will be recycled if we place them in the correct bins. We trust that clean water will pour out of the faucet when we need a drink. And we trust that if we have an emergency, help will arrive after we dial 9-1-1. But do we, as a society, trust wildlife agencies to properly manage wildlife? Dr. Shawn Riley and his team of graduate students in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University have been working to provide an answer to this question by studying factors affecting public trust and confidence in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division (MDNRWD).

Dr. Riley’s team started with asking the general public if they trust in the MDNRWD to manage wildlife. The result was an unexpected and overwhelming majority “Yes” response. The majority “Yes” response may have been the result of residents carefully considering the question, but may also have been a result of a lack of interest in wildlife by many urban residents who answered without much thought. In either case this result was contradictory to a large number of complaints from Michigan residents about the management of nuisance whitetail deer in residential areas. In an effort to reach residents who are interested in wildlife, or hold beliefs about wildlife, Dr. Riley’s team hosted 55 focus groups about trust and confidence in the MDNRWD by sending mail-based surveys to 6,825 Michigan resident hunting license buyers age 19 and older. These hunters were stratified by MDNRWD administrative regions (e.g. Upper Peninsula Region (UPR), Northern Lower Peninsula Region (NLPR), Southwestern LP Region (SWLPR), Southeastern LP Region (SEPLR)) (shown to the right).

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More than 2,700 surveys were returned from the various MDNRWD regions. The surveys asked hunters questions pertaining to three overarching categories:

  • Procedural fairness
  • Technical competence
  • Trust/Confidence

The idea was that hunters who believe the MDNRWD knows how to manage wildlife (i.e. is technically competent) and manages wildlife in a way that is fair to the public (procedural fairness) will be confident in the MDNRWD and trust the MDNRWD to manage wildlife properly, and hunters who do not believe the MDNRWD is technically competent or acts with procedural fairness would not trust the MDNRWD. Using a technique known as Structural Equation Modeling, or SEM, Dr. Riley’s team found that the perception of procedural fairness was a better indicator of trust and confidence than technical competence. This was not to say that technical competence did not matter, but that a person’s trust in the MDNRWD was affected more by his or her perception of procedural fairness than by his or her perception of technical competence. This finding was consistent across all MDNRWD regions.

deerInterestingly, the survey also found that people with low trust and high trust were clustered together in similar geographic areas. This pattern shows that even nextdoor neighbors can hold opposite values for trust in the MDNRWD. For example, to one resident a whitetail deer eating an expensive ornamental plant may be a nuisance, and yet to another resident seeing deer in the neighborhood is a natural amenity and possibly a motivation for residing in the area.

Dr. Riley’s research has shed light on the issue of public trust and confidence in wildlife agencies. Survey results and anecdotal accounts from focus groups suggested that residents who have experienced positive interactions with wildlife agency personnel were more likely to perceive procedural fairness and trust the agency, or at least the local agency personnel. Alternatively, residents who experienced negative interactions with personnel were more likely to perceive procedural unfairness and consequently distrust the agency. Dr. Riley points out that each and every interaction between wildlife managers and private citizens is an opportunity for the agency to either build or erode trust.

In the U.S., all citizens are stakeholders in the management of wildlife and we should expect nothing short of technical competence and procedural fairness from wildlife agencies. As wildlife managers, we must strive to meet these expectations in stride and recognize the importance, in regards to trust and confidence, of every conversation and interaction with public stakeholders. After all, the saying goes “trust is like an eraser, with every mistake, there is less and less.”

ABOUT DR. RILEY:

rileyDr. Shawn Riley, shown to the left, is a certified wildlife biologist, a scientist in the Partnership for Ecosystem Research and Management (sponsored by the Wildlife Division of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources), a professor of human dimensions of wildlife in the Department