Serda Ozbenian and Mary Pfaffko

A recently released study on America’s Wildlife Values, led by researchers at Colorado State University and The Ohio State University, found that differences in values can cause conflict over fish and wildlife management in the U.S. This is the first national effort to assess how residents across the country think about wildlife, and how their differing attitudes and preferences influence how fish and wildlife are managed. The compilation of new and existing polling found that, in 2018, more Americans generally supported wildlife management that emphasizes wildlife protection over more traditional consumptive uses. These findings also affirm Defenders of Wildlife’s understanding of the public’s attitudes towards fish and wildlife management. 

Black Bear in New Hampshire
Duane Cross

The study is based on an analysis of results from 2018 surveys of the public in all 50 states and staff from 28 state fish and wildlife agencies, and compared them to the results of the similar Wildlife Values in the West 19-state study of public values conducted in 2004 (Teel, Dayer, Manfredo, and Bright 2005).  

The report groups Americans by “wildlife value orientation types,” building on previous research that demonstrated that wildlife values are effective predicters of a person’s position across a wide range of issues. Researchers categorized people using the following four value orientation types (in order from largest to smallest proportion of each value type in the U.S.):

  • Mutualists, who associate with animals as companions deserving of care and even rights, similar to people (35 percent of respondents).
  • Traditionalists, who view wildlife as a resource that should be managed and used for the benefit of people (28 percent of respondents).
  • Pluralists, who emphasize a traditionalist or mutualist orientation, depending on the situation or context (21 percent of respondents).
  • Distanced, who exhibit relatively little interest in wildlife (15 percent of respondents).
American Wildlife Values Map
Colorado State University & The Ohio State University
American wildlife value orientation types by state

The study found that wildlife value orientation types vary greatly by state. Between 2004 and 2018 in Western states, Traditionalists decreased an average of 14 percent (5.7 percentage points), and Mutualists increased an average of 21 percent (4.7 percentage points). The researchers attribute these relatively rapid state-level shifts in values to modernization factors (such as increased urbanization, wealth, and education) coupled with migration and intergenerational replacement, which sparked changes in individuals’ attitudes. Nationally, growing populations of Latinos and Asians have contributed to the rise in the percentage of Mutualists, since those populations are composed of twice as many Mutualists as Traditionalists. 

Great blue heron with fish
Bernard Creswick

The report also found that minority groups are significantly underrepresented in the ranks of state fish and wildlife agencies. While demographic diversity continues to grow across the U.S., state fish and wildlife agencies continue to be dominated by white (91 percent in agency surveys) males (72 percent in agency surveys). And, their views do not appear to reflect the views of the majority of the public since 34 percent of the public in the states with agencies that participated in the survey are Mutualist compared to only 8 percent of agency employees.

Coyote Rocky Mountain National Park
Vaughn Cottman

While values are formed at an early age and change minimally over one’s life, attitudes toward issues may change over a relatively short period of time. The study demonstrates how strongly values are correlated with beliefs and attitudes about environmental and wildlife issues. As the proportion of Mutualists in a state increases, belief in climate change as a result of human activity increases; there is greater support for environmental protection versus economic growth; and, there is less support for lethal control of predators including wolves killing livestock, coyotes killing pets, and bears attacking humans.  In states with a higher proportion of Traditionalists, there is a stronger belief that private property rights are a higher priority than protecting declining or endangered species.  

American Wildlife Values Graph Lethal Control
Image Credit
Colorado State University & The Ohio State University
American Wildlife Values Map Lethal Control of Wovles
Image Credit
Colorado State University & The Ohio State University

Shifting public values is correlated with a decline in trust in state fish and wildlife agencies by the public and an increase in conflict over wildlife management issues. States with a higher percentage of Mutualists have lower levels of trust in their state fish and wildlife agency due, in part, to Traditionalists feeling left behind by change and resisting the rise of Mutualist wildlife values.

Researchers also demonstrated a correlation between wildlife values and preferred funding mechanisms for state fish and wildlife management. Faced with declining revenue from decreasing hunting and fishing license sales, agencies are challenged with how to fund the future of fish and wildlife management. A majority of people surveyed preferred supporting state agencies with equal contributions from hunting and angling license fees and general tax funds. The percentage of people that favored funding with taxes over license fees increased as the percentage of Mutualists in a state increased.

Mule deer at sunset
Jeff Stenstrom

In addition, the study explored the impact of value orientation types on wildlife-related recreation trends. Engagement in hunting and fishing was higher for Traditionalists and Pluralists compared to Mutualists, with rates varying considerably by state. The percentages of people who expressed interest in future hunting (16%) and fishing (32%) were lower than rates of past participation, while wildlife viewing had higher future interest (52%) compared to past participation. Notably, white, indigenous and Latino populations participated more in wildlife viewing and had more interest in doing so in the future than African American and Asian populations. The report concludes that trends such as declines in hunter numbers are a powerful example of a persistent transformative force of change on state wildlife policy, management and support. 

This historic study presents an important snapshot of wildlife values across the country today. The study contributes to the ongoing dialogue about the ‘human dimensions’—the role people play—and how our attitudes influence fish and wildlife management. Using sociological, geographic, and economic data, the study increases our understanding of today’s challenges and opportunities to adapt to changing wildlife values. 

Defenders embraces the diversity of wildlife values and perspectives among Americans in our work to reform the composition of fish and wildlife commissions and state fish and wildlife agencies, advocate for policies that are reflective of Americans’ wildlife values, and safeguard existing funding sources and support additional funding for fish and wildlife management. 

Visit the study website to read the national report and detailed state level reports or check out our fact sheet for highlights.


Serda Ozbenian headshot

Serda Ozbenian

Senior Manager, Field Conservation Programs
As the Senior Manager for Field Conservation at Defenders, Serda serves as a liaison/advocate for field office staff and works closely with the Vice President of Field Conservation to ensure consistency across and support of Defenders’ Field Conservation programs, primarily Defenders’ coexistence work.
Mary Pfaffko

Mary Pfaffko

Director, Private Lands Program
Mary Pfaffko joined Defenders of Wildlife in 2017 where she conducts complex policy research and analysis, and develops information, partnerships, and programs to further science-based wildlife conservation on private lands nationwide.

Wildlife & Wild Places

Follow Defenders of Wildlife

facebook twitter instagram youtube medium tiktok threads
Get Updates and Alerts