Beyond Bambi and Big Bucks: Exploring the Social Complexity of Deer Management in Indiana
Human interactions with white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) continue to change across the U.S. The growth of deer populations and urbanization of human populations have shifted values for wildlife away from traditional use toward mutual coexistence while simultaneously providing habitat for deer to thrive. Still, a mismatch exists between the reality of human-deer interactions and the management of them. Despite a changing social landscape, the human dimensions of deer management remain focused on hunting interests and the mitigation of crop damage to agricultural producers. Amid a national push to broaden wildlife ‘stakeholders’ to encompass all potential beneficiaries of wildlife, state wildlife agencies need to assess the needs and concerns of the broader public they serve to determine whether and how to engage non-traditional groups in wildlife management planning.
Recognizing these needs, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IN-DNR) partnered with Purdue University in 2018 to initiate the Integrated Deer Management Project (IDMP). As part of the IDMP, this dissertation comprises the first empirical assessment of social perceptions of white-tailed deer across Indiana. My research aimed to: (i) examine the initial context of human-deer interactions in Indiana and identify key social and cognitive factors that shape them; (ii) investigate how emotions, an understudied construct, interact with beliefs and attitudes to influence resident judgements about deer management; (iii) understand existing levels of satisfaction with deer management, potentials for social conflict over management approaches, and their social-ecological drivers; and (iv) develop indices and tools that can help IN-DNR officials better account for social perceptions and concerns in deer management planning. Due to a lack of prior knowledge about human-deer interactions in the state, I used an exploratory mixed-methods research design to address these objectives. I began by conducting 59 semi-structured interviews with residents around Indiana and two focus groups in the city of Bloomington (n=14) to understand their existing perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and emotions related to deer and deer management. These interviews informed the development of a quantitative survey which I distributed to 6,000 residents across the state. I received 1806 completed surveys for a response rate of 33%.
My data show that social perceptions of deer and deer management remain complex, driven by dynamic feedbacks among emotions, personal experiences, livelihood and behavioral contexts, beliefs about deer management, and beliefs about other social groups. I found that mixed emotions, situational contexts, and perceived power imbalances play key roles in shaping and shifting deer-related cognitions, yet models of cognitive processing, and human-wildlife interactions more broadly, neglect these dynamics. Emotions, specifically, have been marginalized by researchers and practitioners, likely due to the perception that they represent irrational reactions rather than calculated judgements. Under different scenarios of encountering deer, however, I found that respondent emotions exert a mediating effect on their judgments about deer management, and that the type of deer encountered matters. Emotions thus work together with cognitions to process various stimuli in a human-wildlife encounter and reach a normative decision. I posit that understanding when and why emotional responses arise will help practitioners develop more effective and socially accepted approaches to wildlife management.
I next developed and analyzed indices of public satisfaction with the IN-DNR and potentials for social conflict over deer management approaches. I found that public satisfaction with deer management is nuanced and multidimensional. Cognitive variables like residents’ perceived acceptability of management methods and their deer-related concerns most strongly predicted agency performance and quality measures of satisfaction, whereas demographic characteristics including self-identity, wildlife value orientation, and allowance of hunting on one’s property exerted the strongest influences on trust components of satisfaction. Future studies should advance a multidimensional conception of satisfaction and associate it with key variables that I suspect underly satisfaction but were not captured in this study: perceived control, psychological distance, and norms of knowledge exchange between wildlife agencies and the public. Next, I found that potentials for social conflict over deer management varied with resident self-identities and management methods but showed more predictable variation with political ideologies. Geographically, hotspots of social conflict clustered around urban areas, indicating that cities and their residents should serve as a focus for public engagement efforts and mixed management strategies. Expanding agency conceptions of public satisfaction and social conflict represents a critical step towards broadening support for wildlife management and practicing good wildlife governance. I conclude by discussing barriers to integrating social and ecological data and the practicality of incorporating complex social dimensions into wildlife management planning.