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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric

Gray wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Less than three months from now Colorado will decide whether to support Initiative 107, otherwise known as the Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative.  Polling done as recently as August of 2019 by Colorado State University found that 84% of Coloradans support reintroduction and suggests that the initiative will almost certainly pass.  Understandably, the prospect of big, bad gray wolves returning to the state’s sparsely populated Western Slope has not sat well with a vocal minority of folks— outfitters, elk/deer hunters, livestock producers, as well as the self-described political organization Coloradans Protecting Wildlife and Stop the Wolf PAC—who all oppose the initiative.

Although opponents have had well over a year to persuade voters that wolves are wrong for Colorado and trot out every conceivable argument from wolves are a vector to disease, to it’s not fair to wolves, to my personal favorite, wolves will destroy habitat, polling currently indicates that a paltry 16% of people oppose the initiative. So what went wrong?  Clearly there are several social, cultural, logistical, and geographic explanations for the anti-wolf lobby’s inability to connect with voters.  But as is true with other controversies, how we regard wolves or any controversial subject is often more about rhetoric than reality.

We can tell a lot about how a writer regards their audience by looking at the rhetoric they use and the arguments they make.  We also know that the most compelling rhetoric generally demonstrates an awareness of facts and, ultimately, of the empirical world from which those facts arise.  This is not to say that we aren’t all blinkered from time to time by our passions and convictions, but if there is one thing that is consistently absent from anti-wolf rhetoric, it is the sine qua non of informed decision-making: a fealty to and honest presentation of the facts.

Chris Dorsey’s article “Colorado Initiative Latest Effort to Manage Wildlife through Public Opinion,” which appeared in Forbes on August 5th, is illustrative.  Despite the piece’s rather benign-sounding title, the article is a veritable cornucopia of logical fallacies, slanted evidence, claptrap, and half-truths whose sole purpose seems to be to mislead the audience, though it isn’t entirely clear who the audience might be: Even with a +7/-7 margin of error, the Colorado State University poll (and, indeed, other polls like it) doesn’t suggest that there are many unmade minds left to capture, nor that Dorsey and his cohort have any reason to hope that support for the initiative will change.

Hard pressed to account for such a dramatic discrepancy between polling numbers, opponents of Initiative 107 (and others like it) often levy the charge that city folks have no right to make decisions that will directly affect rural people’s lives.  I get it.  As a member of a democracy who must also abide by legislation with which I disagree (here in Utah, for instance, the agricultural community wields tremendous influence over how our predators are treated), I am not unsympathetic to this complaint.  But this is how a democracy works: rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, the majority gets to decide how things are going to go.  And I’m sure that rural folks have voted on issues that don’t directly affect them but do affect their urban and suburban neighbors.  In the case of 107, however, this rural gripe is not even true according to Ballotpedia.org:

Analysts of the [CSU] survey wrote, ‘Voting intentions were similar across the different regions of Colorado: 84.9% of sampled respondents in the Front Range, 79.8% on the Western Slope, and 79.3% on the Eastern Plains would vote for wolf reintroduction. The proportion that would vote in favor of wolf reintroduction was relatively similar among residents in cities, towns, or rural areas and individuals with and without children. Pet owners were more likely to vote for wolf reintroduction (88.3%) than those that did not own pets (76.4%). Voting intentions were broadly consistent across demographic categories, including gender, age group, income, and education’

One can only speculate about why opponents of 107 haven’t squarely addressed this breach in their defense, but omission is one of the oldest ploys in the book.  In law this is known as lying by omission.  In his article How to hide global warming in plain sight, discourse analyst and Emeritus Professor of English Tom Huckin offers a more charitable term for omission, known as “backgrounding”:

To describe these sorts of textual manipulations, discourse analysts use a concept borrowed from the theater world: “staging.” Staging refers to the degree of prominence given to a certain concept in a text or body of texts. Concepts that receive significant attention are said to be foregrounded, those that do not are backgrounded. Backgrounding reaches an extreme when relevant information is entirely omitted.

Whether we are talking about global warming, mountain lions, or wolf reintroduction, the point is that people deserve the best information upon which to base their decisions.  As information donors, writers do their readers a profound (or extreme) disservice when we fail to mention key details that would help audiences understand what is really (not just personally) relevant.  Dorsey makes this misstep when, about half-way through his article, he writes: “What some see as a black and white issue has become a blue versus red debate, with densely populated Democratic urban centers imposing their will through the ballot box on rural, largely Republican counties.”  Dorsey taps into the tired “us versus them” trope, but makes no mention of the fact that nearly 80% of people polled from the Western Slope also favor wolf reintroduction.

A similar, though perhaps more egregious example of omission via backgrounding occurs at the very beginning of Dorsey’s article where, immediately following the image of a snarling black wolf (one of several images whose function is obviously to evoke animosity toward the wolf), Dorsey shares a cautionary tale out of California, otherwise known as Proposition 117, or the California Wildlife Protection Act, whose purpose was to ban mountain lion hunting.

According to Dorsey, “the ironic result of Prop 114 [sic]* has been that more mountain lions are now killed each year in California than before the supposed ban was implemented.”  He then cites a Sacramento Bee article from 2017, which reported that “an average of 98 mountain lions had been killed” annually for depredation since the hunting ban went into effect, which is “nearly four times the number prior to the passage of the ballot initiative.”  Sounds damning, but what Dorsey doesn’t say is that in the very next and last sentence of the paragraph the Bee writer adds that “Experts caution that the higher numbers may reflect better record keeping and a larger lion population.”

Granted, when it comes to losing 98 lions a year for depredation, 98 might seem like 98-too-many, in which case improved record-keeping may not offer much consolation.  But as Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, was quoted as saying in the Bee article, “The core of 117 was ending the trophy hunting of mountain lions, where people were out to kill unoffending lions for their heads.”  In other words, Proposition 117 did exactly what it was designed to do, which was to end the needless and wanton destruction of mountain lions that had managed to stay away from people, livestock and, therefore, out of trouble.

Had the proposition not been passed, Californians could conservatively add another 200 or more lions to the death tally.  The Bee writer did his due diligence by including this important fact in his article (“. . . the numbers of cats killed under the depredation permit system is still lower than the hunting season proposed before Proposition 117’s passage”), but mum’s the word in Dorsey’s piece and readers are the poorer because of it.

Wildlife ecologist and Biology Professor John Laundré would agree.  After examining 20 years of data from California and 10 other states where trophy hunting lions is still used as a “management” tool, Laundré and his colleague Christopher M. Papouchis concluded that sport hunting has not achieved its desired goals of reducing threats to people, livestock, and deer.  In fact, trophy hunting has had little to no effect on these variables in the states where trophy hunting is permitted.  In states where effects have been measurable, it’s been in the opposite direction from what state and federal wildlife management agencies had predicted, e.g., trophy hunting doesn’t decrease lion predation of livestock; it actually increases it.

“So, the California model, based on public opinion, has actually worked well,” Laundré told me for this article.  “For the controlled minimal removal of specific problem animals, the state has accomplished the same, or better, than the other 10 states that use hunters. Hunters spread across the landscape like a poison, indiscriminately killing in excess of 350 cougars that would probably never cause any problems. And like poisons on the landscape, they create more problems than they solve.”  Thus, contrary to Dorsey’s claim that, subsequent to the passage of 117, “the law of unintended consequences prevailed as it often does when emotionally charged wildlife management issues wind up on the ballot,” the people of California did right by mountain lions and ecology by approving Initiative 117.

Examples of textual manipulation abound in Dorsey’s article.  One can only conclude, then, that Dorsey’s piece isn’t interested in providing a reasoned discussion of the facts; nor is it interested in equipping Coloradans with the best available information so that they may be confident in their conclusions.  The war on wolves and other predators rages on, but by most indications the battle to defeat 107—the Gray Wolf Reintroduction initiative—is over.  Come November and with science on their side, Coloradans will exercise their own civic duty and moral responsibility and do right by wolves.

Notes.

*(Dorsey refers to it as Proposition 114, but the purpose of 114 was to increase the number and type of officers covered under the Briggs Death Penalty Act).

Maximilian Werner is an Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah.  His most recent book Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns–Death and Coexistence in the American West will be published later this year. Reach him at mswerner@gmail.com and @ProfMWerner.  

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