An expert on environmental attitudes warned Tuesday that a shift in public attitudes toward wolves could endanger the species’ presence in Wisconsin. 

Thomas Heberlein, University of Wisconsin community and environmental sociology professor emeritus, addressed about 50 people as part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate Lecture Series, and said the current wolf population in Wisconsin depends on the positive attitudes of the public toward wolves.

He said these positive attitudes have allowed the population of wolves in Wisconsin to grow from 25 in 1980 to about 800 in 2012.

“This attitude context is ‘good social habitat’ for wolves,” Heberlein said. “I think the wolves are here, and they are here to stay.”

However, he said his surveys showed that a large number of people, about 24 percent across all his studies, were neutral toward wolves and that a number of people did not return his surveys.

“Those people are dangerous,” Heberlein said. “This means that rapid negative attitude change is possible.”

Heberlein said this occured in New York’s Adirondack State Park, where conservation biologists wanted to introduce wolves. The biologists conducted a survey in in 1996, showing 76 percent supported wolf restoration while 18 percent opposed.

However, a 1997 survey showed 46 percent supported the hunt and 42 percent opposed, and Heberlein said wolves were not introduced.

Heberlein attributed the shift to the media reframing the issue and swaying people neutral toward wolves to have a negative opinion. He said he was concerned if a wolf attacked a person in Wisconsin, it might cause a shift toward negative attitudes toward wolves.

“To protect wolves, we need to be ready to deal with this kind of event,” Heberlein said. “So that would mean hiring experts to have in place, hiring rapid response teams to get on any kind of wolf human incident, and to really spend our resources getting ready for that.”

Heberlein said when Wisconsin took control of managing the wolf population after the federal government delisted wolves as an endangered species, they established a wolf hunt.

He said having a hunting season is a normal part of species restoration, often used as a way of establishing a stable population.

“If the state decides how many wolves there should be, we can’t hand out brochures to the wolves or condoms to the wolves and say your population is supposed to be 300,” Heberlein said. “Wolves will do what they will do and so the major way of controlling populations is through sport hunting.” 

However, Heberlein said Wisconsin’s hunt was unusual since the Legislature set the season’s length, threatening the North American Wildlife Conservation Model.

The model involved taking wildlife management control away from the Legislature and giving it to scientific experts, according to Heberlein.

“The action by the Wisconsin Legislature threatens that system that has been in place for better than a hundred years, and that is a concern,” Heberlein said.

Lecture attendee Sara Yeo, a UW life sciences communication graduate student, said she
was interested in people who do not have an opinion on the wolf restoration and the change in attitudes toward wolf restoration.

“And he says that this [shift is due to] people who don’t care,” Yeo said. “But maybe the people who don’t care really still don’t care and those who have had positive attitudes somehow became more negative.”