Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric

Less than three months from now Colorado will decide whether to support Initiative 107, otherwise known as the Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative.  Polling done as recently as August of 2019 by Colorado State University found that 84% of Coloradans support reintroduction and suggests that the initiative will almost certainly pass.  Understandably, the prospect of big, bad gray wolves returning to the state’s sparsely populated Western Slope has not sat well with a vocal minority of folks— outfitters, elk/deer hunters, livestock producers, as well as the self-described political organization Coloradans Protecting Wildlife and Stop the Wolf PAC—who all oppose the initiative.

Although opponents have had well over a year to persuade voters that wolves are wrong for Colorado and trot out every conceivable argument from wolves are a vector to disease, to it’s not fair to wolves, to my personal favorite, wolves will destroy habitat, polling currently indicates that a paltry 16% of people oppose the initiative. So what went wrong?  Clearly there are several social, cultural, logistical, and geographic explanations for the anti-wolf lobby’s inability to connect with voters.  But as is true with other controversies, how we regard wolves or any controversial subject is often more about rhetoric than reality.

We can tell a lot about how a writer regards their audience by looking at the rhetoric they use and the arguments they make.  We also know that the most compelling rhetoric generally demonstrates an awareness of facts and, ultimately, of the empirical world from which those facts arise.  This is not to say that we aren’t all blinkered from time to time by our passions and convictions, but if there is one thing that is consistently absent from anti-wolf rhetoric, it is the sine qua non of informed decision-making: a fealty to and honest presentation of the facts.

Chris Dorsey’s article “Colorado Initiative Latest Effort to Manage Wildlife through Public Opinion,” which appeared in Forbes on August 5th, is illustrative.  Despite the piece’s rather benign-sounding title, the article is a veritable cornucopia of logical fallacies, slanted evidence, claptrap, and half-truths whose sole purpose seems to be to mislead the audience, though it isn’t entirely clear who the audience might be: Even with a +7/-7 margin of error, the Colorado State University poll (and, indeed, other polls like it) doesn’t suggest that there are many unmade minds left to capture, nor that Dorsey and his cohort have any reason to hope that support for the initiative will change.

Hard pressed to account for such a dramatic discrepancy between polling numbers, opponents of Initiative 107 (and others like it) often levy the charge that city folks have no right to make decisions that will directly affect rural people’s lives.  I get it.  As a member of a democracy who must also abide by legislation with which I disagree (here in Utah, for instance, the agricultural community wields tremendous influence over how our predators are treated), I am not unsympathetic to this complaint.  But this is how a democracy works: rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, the majority gets to decide how things are going to go.  And I’m sure that rural folks have voted on issues that don’t directly affect them but do affect their urban and suburban neighbors.  In the case of 107, however, this rural gripe is not even true according to Ballotpedia.org:

Analysts of the [CSU] survey wrote, ‘Voting intentions were similar across the different regions of Colorado: 84.9% of sampled respondents in the Front Range, 79.8% on the Western Slope, and 79.3% on the Eastern Plains would vote for wolf reintroduction. The proportion that would vote in favor of wolf reintroduction was relatively similar among residents in cities, towns, or rural areas and individuals with and without children. Pet owners were more likely to vote for wolf reintroduction (88.3%) than those that did not own pets (76.4%). Voting intentions were broadly consistent across demographic categories, including gender, age group, income, and education’

One can only speculate about why opponents of 107 haven’t squarely addressed this breach in their defense, but omission is one of the oldest ploys in the book.  In law this is known as lying by omission.  In his article How to hide global warming in plain sight, discourse analyst and Emeritus Professor of English Tom Huckin offers a more charitable term for omission, known as “backgrounding”:

To describe these sorts of textual manipulations, discourse analysts use a concept borrowed from the theater world: “staging.” Staging refers to the degree of prominence given to a certain concept in a text or body of texts. Concepts that receive significant attention are said to be foregrounded, those that do not are backgrounded. Backgrounding reaches an extreme when relevant information is entirely omitted.

Whether we are talking about global warming, mountain lions, or wolf reintroduction, the point is that people deserve the best information upon which to base their decisions.  As information donors, writers do their readers a profound (or extreme) disservice when we fail to mention key details that would help audiences understand what is really (not just personally) relevant.  Dorsey makes this misstep when, about half-way through his article, he writes: “What some see as a black and white issue has become a blue versus red debate, with densely populated Democratic urban centers imposing their will through the ballot box on rural, largely Republican counties.”  Dorsey taps into the tired “us versus them” trope, but makes no mention of the fact that nearly 80% of people polled from the Western Slope also favor wolf reintroduction.

A similar, though perhaps more egregious example of omission via backgrounding occurs at the very beginning of Dorsey’s article where, immediately following the image of a snarling black wolf (one of several images whose function is obviously to evoke animosity toward the wolf), Dorsey shares a cautionary tale out of California, otherwise known as Proposition 117, or the California Wildlife Protection Act, whose purpose was to ban mountain lion hunting.

According to Dorsey, “the ironic result of Prop 114 [sic]* has been that more mountain lions are now killed each year in California than before the supposed ban was implemented.”  He then cites a Sacramento Bee article from 2017, which reported that “an average of 98 mountain lions had been killed” annually for depredation since the hunting ban went into effect, which is “nearly four times the number prior to the passage of the ballot initiative.”  Sounds damning, but what Dorsey doesn’t say is that in the very next and last sentence of the paragraph the Bee writer adds that “Experts caution that the higher numbers may reflect better record keeping and a larger lion population.”

Granted, when it comes to losing 98 lions a year for depredation, 98 might seem like 98-too-many, in which case improved record-keeping may not offer much consolation.  But as Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, was quoted as saying in the Bee article, “The core of 117 was ending the trophy hunting of mountain lions, where people were out to kill unoffending lions for their heads.”  In other words, Proposition 117 did exactly what it was designed to do, which was to end the needless and wanton destruction of mountain lions that had managed to stay away from people, livestock and, therefore, out of trouble.

Had the proposition not been passed, Californians could conservatively add another 200 or more lions to the death tally.  The Bee writer did his due diligence by including this important fact in his article (“. . . the numbers of cats killed under the depredation permit system is still lower than the hunting season proposed before Proposition 117’s passage”), but mum’s the word in Dorsey’s piece and readers are the poorer because of it.

Wildlife ecologist and Biology Professor John Laundré would agree.  After examining 20 years of data from California and 10 other states where trophy hunting lions is still used as a “management” tool, Laundré and his colleague Christopher M. Papouchis concluded that sport hunting has not achieved its desired goals of reducing threats to people, livestock, and deer.  In fact, trophy hunting has had little to no effect on these variables in the states where trophy hunting is permitted.  In states where effects have been measurable, it’s been in the opposite direction from what state and federal wildlife management agencies had predicted, e.g., trophy hunting doesn’t decrease lion predation of livestock; it actually increases it.

“So, the California model, based on public opinion, has actually worked well,” Laundré told me for this article.  “For the controlled minimal removal of specific problem animals, the state has accomplished the same, or better, than the other 10 states that use hunters. Hunters spread across the landscape like a poison, indiscriminately killing in excess of 350 cougars that would probably never cause any problems. And like poisons on the landscape, they create more problems than they solve.”  Thus, contrary to Dorsey’s claim that, subsequent to the passage of 117, “the law of unintended consequences prevailed as it often does when emotionally charged wildlife management issues wind up on the ballot,” the people of California did right by mountain lions and ecology by approving Initiative 117.

Examples of textual manipulation abound in Dorsey’s article.  One can only conclude, then, that Dorsey’s piece isn’t interested in providing a reasoned discussion of the facts; nor is it interested in equipping Coloradans with the best available information so that they may be confident in their conclusions.  The war on wolves and other predators rages on, but by most indications the battle to defeat 107—the Gray Wolf Reintroduction initiative—is over.  Come November and with science on their side, Coloradans will exercise their own civic duty and moral responsibility and do right by wolves.

Notes.

*(Dorsey refers to it as Proposition 114, but the purpose of 114 was to increase the number and type of officers covered under the Briggs Death Penalty Act).

This essay was previously published in Counterpoint, August 14, 2020.

 
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About The Author

Maximilian Werner

Maximilian Werner is Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah. He is the author of six books. His seventh book, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns -- Death and Coexistence in the American West, is scheduled to be published this fall. He can be reached at mswerner@gmail.com and @ProfMWerner.

7 Responses to Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf

  1. Good article. I think its very productive to call out anyone who is spreading untruths – fake truth? There seems to be an awful lot of that nowadays.
    Nice to hear actual knowledge & research rather than propaganda.

  2. avatar Peter Callen says:

    Thanks for your “counterspin” piece Maximilian. I echo what Maggie says above.

  3. avatar Beeline says:

    So what do we do about the “Big Bad” ranchers that screw us out of our tax money?

  4. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Thrilling! I’m glad to read that the majority of Coloradans want wolves back where they belong.

    As you say, I am not unsympathetic either to damage that predators can sometimes do, but I wish there were an equally live-and-let live attitude from the ranching and hunting communities, instead of a no wolves at all mindset.

    This really deprives others of seeing an important part of the natural world, as when we read of a wolf that becomes a fan favorite who is killed by a hunter just because he can, and to impose human dominance is more what it appears to be.

  5. avatar Lyn McCormick says:

    I would support a more natural approach which would be to have an Initiative to open the wildlife migration corridors and increase the number of wildlife crossings. I live in a county in Colorado that has reported the most recent sightings of wolves in Colorado. Wolves are already here; however, what Front Range voters don’t realize is that Colorado Parks & Wildlife received 4+ million dollars to remove lions and bears in a relatively small area of the Western Slope (which is actually on fire right now at over 81,000 acres) It was promoted as “research” to increase the allegedly declining deer population and it was passed inspite of overwhelming public pressure against it. Also, the bears that show up in Steamboat Springs are tagged (3 strikes rule) and re-located to our rural Ag County. Yesterday I saw a baby bear along the river, which is a first, and I wondered what the bears find to eat in the high desert during a hot, dry summer. I also noticed all of the antelope and elk had cleared out of the hay fields where they’ve been grazing all summer.

    There is alot of pressure on the wildlife in our area; between hunting and recreation they are under siege for more than 6 mos. of the year. A recent article in High Country News talked about the ethics of “shed hunting” because of the additional pressure it’s putting on the wildlife. On the ranch where I live I see more “late” deer and Antelope fawns every year just a month out from the first hunting season. One winter I counted 23 dead, from starvation, weanling elk calves, mostly females in a 2 mile radius of the ranch. CPW said they start feeding the elk when the female population gets to 20% but you would not have seen these carcasses from a helicopter. I snowshoe and ski all winter otherwise I would not have found them. The number of roadkill seems to be increasing as well but i doubt those numbers are taken into account. The West Slope of Colorado is not as “unsettled” as most people think.

    Also, the Corona virus and people escaping the cities has added a whole new level of pressure this year.

    I’m not convinced we need more wolves artifically re-introduced at this point and I worry they will be managed like the bears and big cats and we don’t need any more excuses to add another hunting season.

    just sayin . . .

    • avatar Maximilian Werner says:

      Hi Lyn,

      Thank you for this information. It reminds me of a couple things, the first being that no one call tell the whole story, and second, that the reality on the ground isn’t always reflected in the rhetoric, mine or anyone else’s. More importantly, though, is the question of whether or not anyone has shared these concerns with, or put these questions to, CPW. If not, this might be a good next step, especially for those of us who are writing about this issue and presenting it to the public. I share some of your concerns. So let’s figure out what’s next. My email is mswerner@gmail.com. You can email me and then I will give you my phone number if it would be easier to talk. This isn’t a drive-by for me. Let’s get to work.

  6. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    I’d be happy with any and all suggestions put into effect – protection/restoring of native wildlife to areas where they have historically roamed, migration corridors connected, and more wildlife crossings.

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