A New Approach to an Old Issue: An Examination of Qualitative Research on Wolf Predation

A New Approach to an Old Issue: An Examination of Qualitative Research on Wolf Predation

The reintroduction of wolves into Idaho in 1995 has generated debate for years, but Jeff Vance Martin’s recently published study, Peace in the valley? Qualitative insights on collaborative coexistence from the Wood River Wolf Project, takes a different approach to the decades-long issue. Instead of constructing his arguments out of numbers and surveys, as has been the norm in science, Martin employs a unique qualitative approach to examine the successes and shortcomings of local depredation techniques.

Quantitative research relies on numbers and calculations. Qualitative research employs a variety of techniques such as interviews and case studies. In terms of real-world policy, qualitative research can be especially helpful in clarifying the stances of stakeholders and making strategic plans. Martin’s study focuses on the Wood River Wolf Project, a nonprofit based out of Ketchum, Idaho that “promotes the coexistence of livestock and wolves by proactively using nonlethal measures to prevent depredation.” Through interviews and observations, Martin explains the successes and shortcomings of the program thus far.

The debate over wolf conservation has been on-going for decades. Photo by: Gunnar Ries (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Key to his observations is the interplay between large, federal organizations and local interests. Lethal control of wolf populations has become increasingly controversial, especially among environmental groups. Often, the arguments made by these groups feel out-of-touch to ranchers and others living and working in areas with active wolf packs. The participation of local entities such as Lava Lake Land and Livestock in the Wood River Project has been integral to its success.

Fladry to deter wolves. Photo by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

Local people are often more knowledgeable of the cultural concerns that influence decision-making. As Martin explains, nonlethal depredation tools such as fladry, foxlights, and nightly patrols can be highly beneficial to both ranchers and wolves, but “nonlethal methods…require a transition away from historically-established practices and norms.” Cultural perspectives are further complicated by economic concerns. Ranchers do not incur significant costs from killing wolves but must significantly invest in nonlethal practices for a seemingly similar payout.

In the Sawtooths, foxlights are the most common nonlethal depredation tool, but fladry fencing is also used.

Martin does note that “engagement with the deeper drivers of conflict in the interest of conflict transformation may exceed the means of local collaboratives,” but his research is complementary of the on-the-ground, local approach taken by the Wood River Wolf Project. Forging connections between disparate interest groups is integral to finding true, common-ground solutions. In the case of the Wood River Wolf Project, the work of volunteers to connect with and engage ranchers in nonlethal depredation techniques supports the ranchers’ goal of livestock safety as well as the Wood River Wolf Project’s interest in wolf safety.

Throughout the paper, Martin’s most succinct point is that human-wildlife conflict requires both an understanding of broad political, economic, and cultural challenges and local engagement. While Martin’s paper focuses on wolves, this idea may be applicable to other issues. For example, the new bear food storage order in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area relies on the cooperation of local citizens and recreationists with the Forest Service.

In the Sawtooths, where public and private interests are inherently intertwined, Martin’s research and methodology are especially poignant. While the debates over wolf protection will likely continue for many years yet, his observations of the Wood River Wolf Project pose a greater question for all of us: with increasing recreation usage each year, how will the Sawtooth National Recreation Area manage human-wildlife conflict for its residents, both human and not?

The full paper reviewed here can be found by following this link: The Society for Conservation Biology (wiley.com)

Hailey is a 2021 Naturalist with the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association. She is passionate about connecting people with their local environment and empowering them to tackle environmental issues.