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Payments for livestock loss not changing opinions

It turns out that even though ranchers and farmers get paid for any livestock killed by reintroduced wolves, that cash doesn’t change negative opinions about wolves one bit.

Retributional compensation is supposed to help. Whether local governments, voluntary insurance cooperatives, or NGOs provide the financial support, the idea is that livestock losses caused by reintroduced predator species could be mitigated by financial compensation for that loss.

The results of a new study(subs. required) measuring attitudes towards conservation are not encouraging. In neither Wisconsin nor India – two very different places with different relationships to protected and reintroduced predators – did payments alter negative perceptions of those predators. Notably, not even the amount paid was relevant, as more generous payments in Wisconsin (controlled for Purchasing Power Parity) did not result in greater acceptance of conservation goals.

It’s not so surprising, I suppose: wolves represent a threat to livestock populations, where once in the not so distant past they were no threat at all (because they were exterminated). Interestingly, there are often as many or more livestock losses due to non-wolf predators: black bears, coyotes, and feral dogs are all responsible for livestock deaths every year. Yet the protection afforded by their unique status creates the impression that wolves are not a product of a wild and untamed wilderness that abuts your local ranch, but an affliction enforced by outsiders at the expense of rural populations. In other words, people are upset at wolf depredation because wolves are protected by people, yet other predators are considered a natural part of the landscape because no one exterminated them 100 years ago.

The study’s results call into question the utility of compensation payments for conservation goals: it appears they don’t encourage people to care. It’s an imperfect analogy, but it makes me wonder whether tax-shifts or rebates from carbon legislation or regulation will work. Sure, an equivalent amount of money may be returned to individuals in the form of tax breaks (lower income taxes, say), but if gasoline always costs more at the pump, will people still dislike carbon taxes? It’s been my assumption that performing a tax shift or providing rebates under a cap-and-trade system would lead to wider acceptance with the underlying goal of carbon reductions. The evidence presented in this new paper suggests that compensation for conservation goals may not positively affect opinions about those goals, so that money may be better used in some other way.

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