As a scholar and social scientist I get annoyed when concepts are deployed for partisan purposes without regard for intellectual integrity. Having said that, I suspect that most politicians would find my distress silly, which is to be expected of a breed that exists to promote partisan ends using whatever rhetoric serves the immediate purpose. More to the point, politicians specialize in propaganda, one definition of which is: “Official government communications to the public that are designed to influence opinion. The information may be true or false, but it is always carefully selected for its political effect.” So, politspeak, in the spirit of Politburos and other perversions of public service.
But I expect something quite different from public servants working for administrative agencies. These people are tasked with implementing legislated policy as honestly and faithfully as possible, and, through that, maximizing benefits for the broader public they serve. Policy-relevant information is to be obtained, used, and communicated openly, with as little prejudice as possible. In other words, public communications by folks working for government bureaus should not be in the form of propaganda—not politspeak, at least in a democratic society, at least ideally.
This brings me to public statements made during recent years by spokespeople for the federal and state agencies that manage our wildlife—more specifically, the use of a particular concept by grizzly bear managers in the Yellowstone ecosystem: that of “social carrying capacity.” To be fair, this usage is nested within a broader movement among wildlife managers who invoke “social carrying capacity” as justification for killing all sorts of animals, which may partly explain but not excuse such prevarications.
And that’s the point. “Social carrying capacity” is invariably used to justify killing more animals. Here’s a sampler: by the Florida Wildlife Commission to institute a sport hunt on the threatened Florida black bear and increase lethal control of the endangered Florida panther; by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife to increase levels of sport hunt on black bears in Maine; by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to increase the harvest of mountain lions; by David Mech, a USGS wildlife scientist, to justify hunting wolves in Oregon and Wisconsin; and by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and state wildlife management bureaus of Montana and Wyoming to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections and institute a sport hunt on grizzly bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is my focus here.
The Amorphous “We”
So what do wildlife managers seem to be saying when they invoke “social carrying capacity” as justification for killing these animals? Basically, it comes down to this: the assertion that “people” will not tolerate any more of these large carnivores (read grizzly bears for Yellowstone), which means that “we’ve” reached the limits for how many can be supported in a given area, which means that “we” need to start reducing numbers by killing more animals. In the case of Yellowstone’s grizzlies, the preferred method for killing these bears is through a sport hunt. “People” are viewed as a homogeneous blob, and socially-defined “carrying capacity” as some kind of objective fixed reality.
It is worth noting that none of the wildlife managers deploying the concept of “social carrying capacity” have any obvious expertise in conceptualizing, assessing, or otherwise measuring social phenomena. They are certainly not social scientists. And they are certainly not acquainted with the pedigree of the concept they so freely invoke.
So what are the academic roots of “social carrying capacity”? This concept was first developed by social scientists thinking about the numbers of people that could recreate in an area before their collective enjoyment was critically impaired. Alan Graefe, currently at Penn State, and Jerry Vaske, of Colorado State University, wrote an article in 1984 that reviewed “social carrying capacity” applied to recreation and concluded that it was “…not an absolute value waiting to be discovered, but rather a range of values which must be related to specific management objectives for a given area.” Bill Burch, of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (as well as a friend of mine), wrote the concept off as being essentially useless in papers that he published during 1981 and 1984 in the journal Leisure Sciences. One of his articles was aptly titled “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Nonetheless, Dan Decker and Ken Purdy, both at Cornell, wrote a paper in 1988 that extended the concept to wildlife management, modifying the term to read “wildlife acceptance capacity.” Various academics have since tried to apply this wildlife-specific concept, resurrecting the moniker of “social carrying capacity.” Ben Peyton of Michigan State University recently related the concept to wolves in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Not surprisingly, he concluded that there were four sub-populations of people typified by differing degrees of tolerance for wolves (from highly tolerant to highly intolerant), and that these levels of tolerance were rooted in basic beliefs about the benefits of wolves as well as concerns about negative impacts. He was not brash enough to construe from this how many wolves might be able to live in the Upper Peninsula. Rather, he noted that there was a wide range of highly fungible ideas about what that number might be.
An Amorphous Concept
To be fair, the concept of “social carrying capacity” gets at something fundamentally important, which is that people hold different perspectives about animals such as grizzly bears, which might translate into different ideas about how many of these animals they want, as well as willingness to encounter them or sustain material harm.
But there are huge problems with trying to package all of this in a concept such as “social carrying capacity,” which implies an ability on the part of wildlife managers to derive an unambiguous estimate of how many animals—say, grizzly bears—can live in an area, and from that arrive at some unimpeachable justification for deciding how many of these animals to kill. But such has been the presumption in virtually every instance where a wildlife manager has deployed the concept of “social carrying capacity.”
In fact, people have perspectives that engender different attitudes and expectations, with implications for how wildlife are managed. And these perspectives vary widely in reflection of different world views, different life experiences, and different external circumstances, all of which can be related to demographic proxies such as gender, age, race, place of residence, level of education, type of employment, and so on.
More explicitly, social science research has shown over and over again that white males with less education, living in rural areas, and employed in agriculture have notoriously little tolerance for large carnivores such as grizzly bears. Interestingly, most of these guys are hunters. And, of direct relevance to the drama of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, these guys dominate wildlife management by holding the purse strings and controlling wildlife commissions. Moreover, they are among the politically best connected of all in the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana where we are trying to sustain the few grizzly bears left in the contiguous United States.
Put another way, “people” are not a homogeneous blob when it comes to political power or perspectives about grizzly bears. Nor are there an unambiguous number of grizzlies (or any other wildlife species) that can be sustained given the diversity of these human perspectives. In reality, peoples’ perspectives are way too varied and fungible to be translated into anything like an estimate of “carrying capacity,” including for grizzlies in Yellowstone. Different people want different things, with only inexact notions of how that might translate into size and distribution of a wildlife population–or levels of conflict and rates of encounter.
As important, people can have huge effects on these more concrete outcomes by how they behave and whether they chose to modify their behaviors. For example, whether ranchers in the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming chose to employ husbandry practices know to substantially reduce conflicts with grizzlies, or whether the US Forest Service chooses to revoke grazing permits for regressive ranchers who don’t make a good faith effort.
So, what the heck is going on with our wildlife managers? More specifically, what’s going on with state and federal managers charged with managing grizzly bears in Yellowstone?
The answer is pretty straight-forward. Grizzly bear managers are using “social carrying capacity” as rhetorical cover for maintaining the status quo. And the status quo is largely about serving political masters (read conservative white male hunters, ranchers, or energy executives) who dominate wildlife commissions and have direct-line access to congressional delegations, state legislatures, and governor’s offices controlled by fellow regressive conservatives.
More correctly, wildlife managers are talking about political carrying capacity configured by their assessment of career prospects and the budgetary or other special interests of the wildlife management agencies they work for. To be fair, agency culture is also a major factor, including a deep-seated prejudice against predators that kill animals that would otherwise generate agency revenues through the sale of licenses to hunt large herbivores—at least according to agency myth.
In Yellowstone, the consequences for grizzlies and those who care about them have been dramatic. The solemn intonation of “social carrying capacity” by wildlife managers has served as justification for drawing lines on maps with profound consequences for the life expectancies of grizzly bear. The current Primary Conservation Areas and Demographic Monitoring Areas for managing grizzly bears delimit the bounds beyond which these bears vaporize into the oblivion of institutionalized intolerance. Importantly, these existential lines do not denote much that is explicitly “social,” but rather much that is regionally political.
Interestingly, the notion of “social carrying capacity” was seized upon by opportunistic agency managers during 2004-2007 to capture rhetoric voiced by “advisory councils” constituted by the governors of Montana and Wyoming during 2002-2003. Notably, these highly politicized “councils,” billed as representing a “wide range of stakeholder interests,” served primarily to set the stage for the 2007 removal of ESA protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears—a move later over-turned by federal courts. This recent history uncannily foreshadows the current widely-publicized move by Montana’s governor to convene yet another “advisory council” that will no doubt intone, yet again, the presumed diktat of “social carrying capacity” as, yet again, presumed imperative to remove ESA protections for grizzly bears throughout the Northern Rockies. Or, more transparently: kill more grizzly bears as a balm to the wounds of ranchers, farmers, and conservative ideologues sustained by already ample federal subsidies.
Betraying the Public Trust
All of this brings me back to where I started. I am aggravated, not just by the betrayal of intellectual integrity implicit to how Yellowstone’s grizzly bear managers are using “social carrying capacity,” but also by the extent to which this usage is clearly part of a propaganda campaign that serves the partisan interests of wildlife management agencies and the politically well-connected few that they serve—not the broader public interest. It is especially egregious that a federal bureau such as the US Fish & Wildlife Service is so fully complicit in this betrayal of the public interest when this agency should be representing the interests of all people in the United States, not just ranchers and hunters in states such as Wyoming.
Social carrying capacity? The term should be relegated to the trash bin of Orwellian Politspeak.
I am not at all surprised such folks use whatever language suits that best suits their purposes. They don’t really care if they are intellectually honest or consistent. The means justify the ends. That’s it. And so, in the battle of ideas, we must continue to expose their thought process for what it is: a means to sustain their selfishness and laziness without regard to the consequences to anyone or anything else.
Well said! It’s a reminder of when they opened hunting and later trapping of wolves in Montana and said that would increase social tolerance. In realty, it created a bigger split. Rather than being educated, those opposed to wolves were empowered. They have grown increasingly more vocal, wanting more wolves dead, legally or illegally, despite the elk and deer over-populations, CWD now in our state, and the proven effective nonlethal measures to reduce or eliminate livestock depredations from wolves and grizzlies. As you pointed out, they have friends in high and powerful places. A recent study out of Colorado State, looked at the decline of hunters and anglers nationally, whereas the non-consumptive user groups are on the increase. However, those agencies entrusted to manage wildlife know who butters their bread. Money talks. The wildlife agencies and politicians do basically as they are told fearful to take a stand for wildlife, for all wildlife, and for the best available science. Rarely, if ever, do they publicly oppose or help end unethical hunting practices that create a black eye for the very hand that feeds them. The non-consumptive user is not welcome at the table even with their offering to monetarily contribute. Wildlife committees are now appointed to address social conflict but they are heavily weighed for predictable outcomes such as the Montana trapping advisory committee with trappers outnumbering non-trappers,7:4. In comparison, less than even 1% of Montanans purchase a trapping license. Will the Governor appointed Montana grizzly advisory committee be composed likewise?
As a wildlife manager for a park system for 37 years, who dealt primarily with a tremendous deer overpopulation, I agree with much of the information in this article, but, I cannot agree with the conclusion about the term, “Social carrying Capacity”. It is a concept and not a hard and fast number and should be used as such. When a small county is experiencing over 3,000 automobile accidents a year, when farmers are abandoning their fields because the deer make farming a losing proposition, when every home requires chicken wire cages to allow plants to survive and when you walk into a park that once was a diverse habitat of native vegetation and the only things visible are mature trees and the stubble of ferns on the forest floor, you have surpassed the cultural carrying capacity for deer.
I don’t disagree that the term is sometimes being poorly defined and used as a political tool in the current arguments related to large carnivores in the west but the concept is valid, well founded and understood by most wildlife managers. In fact, it defines and is the crux of the current discussion. To dismiss it as frivolous or meaningless is to say that anyone who doesn’t agree with you has no right to their opinion and no stake in the discussion. I learned a long time ago that in dealing with highly politicized and polarizing wildlife issues, the most important first step is to recognize that those who don’t agree with you have just as much right to their views as you do to yours and their views are every bit as valid as yours. That has to be the starting point.
In our human dominated landscape, there is a limit to the population size of a given species that human tolerance will accept that is in many cases unrelated to and independent of the biological carrying capacity. That is the definition of cultural carry capacity. In regards to large carnivores, there is a broad spectrum of opinions on what that population size might be in any given location, but that is exactly the issue that needs to be hashed out here along with how to maintain that number. Frankly, anyone who doesn’t recognize that will never be very helpful in reconciling the current argument. Unfortunately that seems to be at least 90% of those involved.
This article points out many important facts regarding the biases of the current system, and the changing demographics that will most likely swing this issue in the future more in the direction that many of us feel it should go. But you don’t move that needle by dismissing the other sides argument, which is basically what this article does.
Like so many commentaries on both sides of this issue, this one avoids any attempt to suggest a solution. Instead it serves to undermine many of the wildlife managers who are simultaneously trying to save endangered species and use their training, understanding of habitat, carrying capacity and wildlife behavior, feedback from the public, and experience in dealing with wildlife conflict issues to referee this ongoing debate and try to develop policies with which we can all live.
Maybe, just maybe, these public servants are saying these things because they believe them – because they have a better understanding of ALL the issues and don’t have the luxury of picking sides.
Rob’s first comment is one of the best things I’ve ever read here.
I’ll give the statistician’s view. It is hard to come up with an “unimpeachable” justification for animal densities on the landscape, so that particular criticism can be thrown at anyone lobbying for any density I can name.
Science does not tell us what our values are. Each person has their personal subjective cost (loss) function. The trouble is 1) that no one person gets to make the decision (if they could there is a solution – use their loss function), and 2) there is no set solution to group decision theory problems. So making such a decision becomes political of necessity.
In the forms of government on this continent people have power, and if they care to use it, they can dictate wildlife management. You lobby for the densities you want and I’ll lobby for mine.
I lobby for lower deer densities near me in MI because I care about plants and other animals and the deer are destroying the land. The DNR allows set number of doe permits to try to manipulate the densities. In my county there have been 1500 public land doe permits on sale for about the past ten years, and you are allowed to buy 5 per person. I buy 2 from the get-go, and more later if I fill those. They have never sold all of them, so I can use that wait and see strategy. The 1500 number did not change even after 2012 when EHD killed about half the deer. I do not blame the DNR for high deer densities. I blame hunters, and particularly land owners. Their loss function is different than mine. Most hunters most places want higher deer densities than there are now. They don’t know much about botany, and lack deer hunting skills. And cooking skills – they want to shoot bucks for fun. The deer that I want to kill are the ones that contain deer meat. Fawns are the best in fact, but you need twice as many.
Rork, very good points, thanks.
This is an excellent article and encourages critical thinking when it comes to wildlife management. I would even extend the effects of lethal management based on social capacity to evolutionary components. The Florida bear hunt decimated a larger portion of females than males. Older bears with a high potential for greater genetic diversity where killed such as grandfather bear. juvenescence has played a major role in wildlife evolution by reducing genes that contribute to larger size. Dominance behaviors become skewed which reduced competition for sexual and natural selection. This idea of managing for our own views is far outdated.
What bothers me about the term ‘social carrying capacity’ is that not only can it change, but it seems subject to whim and may be unquantifiable, whatever people don’t like or complain about. ‘Carrying capacity’ alone will be subject to change, except for people. It’s dangerous.
The larger populations get, the more encounters with wildlife there will be – and I don’t think people have the right to a dictatorship over wildlife. Doesn’t work for people, shouldn’t work for other living things either.
Saying that people don’t suggest solutions just derails conversation. Discussing the issue alone is the beginnings of a solution. The draconian control of wildlife by people needs to be eased – and a solution that is always discussed is that people need to do their share to adapt to wildlife as well – things such as the novel idea of proactively watching pets and children and livestock, not leaving trash and food around, etc.
Ida, I agree. It seems to me that there is a vast difference in attitude between the East and the West. In the West we have huge areas of land that have NOT been settled and our major wildlife issues include welfare ranching and overgrazing. There is plenty of room, ‘social capacity’, for large predators. In fact, people come to the West from all over the world just for a chance to see large predators in the wild.
There is a similarity between the East and West. Both areas have had their wildlife hijacked by special interests. Just reading what Ron wrote above you can see the result. Too many deer. Why? Because those states manage for the MOST deer so they can make the MOST money from hunting them, consequences be damned. Once again, can the states be trusted to have the ecosystems best interests at heart? They have not shown they can.
Yes, the article mentions that this terminology doesn’t speak for all of the people. Obviously I am no expert, but I suppose polls are taken that measure people’s tolerance for wildlife? JB probably could speak to that?
But I am afraid generally that only hunters, ranchers and resource exploiters drown out the voices of others. Just look at the way management boards are set up.
Who knows – people’s tolerance for living with wildlife might even improve?
Actually, the state has been proactive to try to control the deer population. Yes, with hunting, but without large predators that is the only tool they have. The deer population has grown out of control because the habitat will support that many deer. The plants people put in yards and especially farm crops offer more food than natural habitats so the population responds. That is why I mentioned the disconnect between biological and cultural carrying capacity. This all applies just as much to the wolf and grizzly issues. In The greater Yellowstone ecosystem they live within a more or less natural ecosystem with many natural constraints. As populations grow and they move out beyond the natural ecosystem they encounter the human dominated environment which often offers more food, like livestock, less natural foods because they have been displaced by livestock, and of course a lot more people and the inevitable encounters with them. As much as you and I may wish that people could be just as tolerant of wolves or grizzlies in their communities as they are of having them in Yellowstone, many will never feel comfortable. Education can certainly help, and time to adapt to this new living arrangement will help. There have been so many mistakes made over the last decade in transitioning from endangered status to non-endangered status, causing such resentment and entrenchment of views on all sides that I fear it will take many decades to smooth over if ever. I currently live in Arizona and am doing what I can to support the Mexican wolf reintroduction and hoping the transition here can be done better than it was done in the Yellowstone region. We will see.
Thank you, good post.
If the East wants to reduce the deer population they must change the way they hunt. Focusing on bucks for trophies doesn’t decrease the long term population, they must hunt does. I learned this in basic wildlife management 101, but these state agencies prioritize maximum deer tags to generate revenue.
I lived and worked in the GYE for over 12 years and know that there is still lots of room for ALL wildlife there. Just take a drive from Jackson, WY. to anywhere else and you will see. It’s about 2 hours to anywhere.
I think we need our top carnivores back too. We still have bears, but we need wolves. We’ve got coyotes but I don’t think they are large enough for deer?
Coyotes are certainly capable of keeping deer numbers in check (not to mention a whole host of rodents, etc.) by including fawns in their diet but many southern, eastern and north eastern states (including parts of the Midwest) where coyotes have made a comeback, are doing their best to suppress their numbers by encouraging sport hunting and trapping.
Pay close attention to this comment Ida, that Rob posted:
“We, the supporters of wildlife, must also accept the fact that wildlife will eventually expand to marginal habitats within the human dominated areas in numbers that will not be acceptable and be prepared to accept that some management will be necessary and that some of that will likely be lethal management”
And I’ll add, only because some predators will become habituated to those human dominated areas.
An interesting read if you want to take the time to wade through it because it isn’t as simple as needing our top carnivores back too, even out here in western states where they still have room to roam.
Thanks, I’ll read –
I agree and our state liberalized the taking of does to the point where you were required to take two does before you could take a buck and then two more does before you could take a second buck. You could take a total of 13 does during the season and all hunting on Ag lands was doe only. I managed the hunting program in our county parks and that was doe only for the first 10 years until we got to the point where bucks out numbered does 2 to 1, then instituted some hunting of the older bucks still requiring several does before that buck could be taken.
I lead nature tours in Yellowstone and am most familiar with the park and less so with the surrounding areas. I agree there is plenty of room for more wildlife and efforts must be made to educate people in how to live with wildlife. Also certain methods of reducing conflict with livestock should be made mandatory and a certain amount of loss is to be expected and absorbed by the industry, just as other industries had to absorb the costs associated with the clean air and clean water acts. But while there is room for more wildlife including large predators, there is not endless room and certainly not endless truly natural areas. We, the supporters of wildlife, must also accept the fact that wildlife will eventually expand to marginal habitats within the human dominated areas in numbers that will not be acceptable and be prepared to accept that some management will be necessary and that some of that will likely be lethal management. The answer is almost always a compromise for all involved.
Rob, all very good points. What state are you talking about? It sounds like they are trying. Also, who do you work for in Yellowstone? Is it summer tours you are doing? I was a NPS Ranger in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ranger at the National Elk Refuge and did nature tours for Teton Science School and Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris.
I worked in Montgomery County Maryland just outside of Washington DC.
I lead Tours for a non-profit in Maryland called the Audubon Naturalist Society. Mostly Birding tours to US and Central American destinations. We do one to Yellowstone and Tetons every 2 to 3 years.
I wonder how often deer cross state lines in your area. Does Maryland have trouble with wildlife management because of other states?
So, Hiker were you a seasonal employee at these locations?
Yes, seasonal Ranger Naturalist and winter time tour guide. I once saw a Bald Eagle taking a bird bath in Flat Creek in the winter!
Not too much movement from state to state. It is really a local problem. If there is a lot of land that is not open to hunting and the habitat is good, as it is nearly everywhere, even in parts of downtown Washington DC, the population will respond and grow. The population can double in a good year and it doesn’t take long to have issues. We had parks that had 220 deer per square mile. We had very little winter kill most years because winters are not severe. I would have loved to have the option to reintroduce predators, but that is never going to happen in suburbia.
Thanks Rob, very interesting! 220 per sq. mile seems excessive. What a dilemma. Hunting seems to be the best way to go in the situation you describe.
Sounds good to me, too!
There’s that argument again – nobody expects wol
I understand that in more populated areas, a death sentence wildlife for daring to set paw, or even the thought of it, in human dominated areas more than likely will happen. One need look no further than CT and the furor over black bears in suburbia.
What I mean is any large still semi-wild (because very little is nowadays) areas with little population. For example, VT has only 623,657 people in the entire state! The Northeast Kingdom would be an ideal place. But then there is that social acceptance thing again. 🙁
sorry, ‘nobody expects wolves to be reintroduced into suburbia’ is what I thought I had typed.
I agree Ida. Seems like there is space in the Northeast for wolves. They may just come back on their own like in Montana.
I hope so! CT and MA would not be good candidates, but ME, NH and VT and on the border of Canada would seem ideal. Kings of the Northeast Kingdom! But the few questionable sightings we’ve had, and one or two that have been shot, means it might be tough.
I should have mentioned that the human population in the area of VT known as the Northeast Kingdom is under 65,000. So it would seem ideal.
I’m not sure why saying that people don’t suggest solutions derails conversation. Discussing the issue can be the beginning of a solution but only if you are discussing it with all the involved parties and really listening to those who disagree with you and making an effort to try to see the issue from their view point as well as your own. I don’t see a lot of that happening on this issue.
It’s not for lack of trying is what I mean. I feel the ‘opposing’ side is not open to any compromise whatsoever – and ‘solution’ encompasses a lot – so to think that any one person can come up with a magic solution just stop conversation, IMO.
There was an attempt for the so called ‘non-consumptive’ users to contribute by purchasing a wolf stamp, because we hear how much hunters and their hunting money contributes to conservation.
The idea was shut down, and tabled (read: never to be heard again), due to opposition from hunters! So it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t – and that needs to be addressed.
Even if there were still some wildlife managers who attempted to do what was ecologically correct they would be politically damned and lose their jobs. The system is broken. Very broken. I would not expect any government agency to do proper management for fish and wildlife at this time.
‘Social carrying capacity’ is used to point out to the hierarchy of ruling elites that modern managers care more about humans than animals. Animals are to be subjugated like slaves (especially those that are symbols of power and freedom) and made targets or disease carrying ‘demons’ so that today’s managers can feel safer behind the bureaucratic curtain while the elites continue to expand capitalism.
Since humans in the U.S. continue to blast each other on a regular basis maybe it is we that have exceeded our own social carrying capacity.
+1 I worry that their objectivity is compromised, because they have to keep their jobs.
Article about the difficulties faced by trying to preserve the red wolf, and probably applies to restoration of all wildlife: