Science and values at the ballot box

Supporting and opposing arguments to Prop 1 and Prop 2 of 2014.

Michigan voters will face two state-wide ballot proposals on November 4, 2014, and science can be used to support both sides of the voting issue; in this way, the ballot proposals become a question of values. Both proposals are veto referendums on laws that establish a hunting season for the wolf and empower the Natural Resources Commission to declare game species without legislative approval. (See my prior Michigan State University Extension article for why the outcome of both proposals is more symbolic than practical.)

Those in favor of hunting the gray wolf have argued that studies conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Natural Resources Department conclude that the wolf population is healthy enough to support a well-regulated hunt in designated parts of the Upper Peninsula. Supporters say that regulated hunting is one of a suite of wolf management tools necessary to maintain a healthy wolf population and to reduce the risk to pets, livestock and humans.

Those against the wolf hunt also argue that science and facts support their cause. Many wildlife biologists who study wolves report that wolves are evasive and seek to avoid contact with humans. Their tight hierarchal social structure can be disrupted by hunting and does not take care of “problem animals.” (Current law already permits problem wolves to be killed by livestock and pet owners and by the DNR). And two extensive, long-term studies have found no evidence of a human ever killed by wolves, and wolf-induced injuries to humans are very rare and almost always caused by a rabid wolf.

Both supporters and opponents to the wolf hunting proposals argue about whom should be trusted with decisions regarding hunting. Hunting advocates have supported the recently-enacted law, the Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, which grants the Natural Resources Commission the power to decide which species can be hunted—following study of the best available science. In this way, Commission members can regulate hunting and fishing without influence from out-of-state special interest groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States (which partially funding the referenda campaign to place the two wolf hunting laws before the voters).

Many opposed to the wolf hunt say that wildlife is held in the pubic trust, and the public should have a say at the ballot box. The Natural Resource Commission members, they argue, are political appointees with no required expertise in wildlife management. Furthermore, the Commission tends to favor pro-hunting policies which, they say, does not represent the broad interests of Michigan residents.

These debates underlie the point that while science can inform our decisions, it cannot tell us how to act. In other words, science can tell us what the world is; ethics and values guide how we ought to act. Defining our values leads us ask: how ought we manage the natural resources of the state, and whose rights take precedence?

For additional data, you may be interested in a 2013 MSU/DNR study analyzing Michigan residents’ attitudes about wolves and wolf hunting.

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