The Role of Trust in Conflicts

Photo by Ken/Sentrawoods

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is a chronic bacterial disease of cattle that can affect other mammals, including humans. Michigan is the only state in the United States where bTB is sustained in the free-ranging deer population, and the primary effects of the disease are on the cattle industry.

To prevent transmission to humans, testing requirements and restrictions on transporting, processing and exporting cattle have been put in place, with significant economic consequences for that industry sector of the state’s economy, according to Brent Rudolph, PhD. Wildlife Research Specialist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“The goal of the State of Michigan and therefore all agencies with a role in bTB management is complete eradication of the disease, established through a Governor’s Executive Directive,” reports Dr. Rudolph. “In order to minimize the chances for deer-to-cattle transmissions, the prevalence of bTB within the deer population must be reduced and it must occur by reducing the deer population and by preventing dense concentrations of deer.”

Deer Hunting in Michigan

Photo from Michigan DNR

To say deer hunting is a big deal in Michigan is an understatement. Approximately 700 thousand hunters spend about 10 million hunter days per year pursuing deer in Michigan.

Private hunt clubs in one region of the state have a long history of engagement in deer management.

“Michigan’s first hunt club was established in 1884, before a state wildlife agency even existed,” explains Dr. Rudolph. “These hunt clubs restricted year-round commercial harvests that occurred at the time. The clubs also protected does from hunter harvest, established feed programs to increase deer populations and later adopted the practice of using bait while hunting to aid in taking deer.”

Unfortunately, these private hunt clubs also created conditions that allowed bTB—which usually can be sustained only in livestock or captive animals—to become established in the wild deer population. The clubs maintained artificially high numbers of deer and concentrated these animals in small areas, which increased the chances of disease transmission. “Before the federal efforts to eradicate bTB from livestock, there was an available source of infection,” he says. “These conditions allowed a crossover infection to take hold in free-ranging deer.”

Photo by Michigan DNR

Beginning in 1998, regulations were put into place that  directly conflicted with deer hunters’ preferences. Baiting  deer became banned in some areas, and deer harvest quotas were increased. Michigan DNR was now relying upon hunters’ cooperation to reduce the deer herd and comply with a new regulation that went against 125 years of tradition.

In general, hunters’ preferences are to have more deer to hunt, and oppose the notion of reducing the deer population. In 2006, a survey revealed about 71 percent of surveyed deer hunters in the bTB area were dissatisfied with the numbers  of deer, but just 21 percent had concerns about deer herd health.

Research based on Criminology

To explore ways for improving hunter compliance and cooperation, Michigan DNR wanted to increase its understanding of hunter decisions regarding these behaviors.

The agency conducted research on Michigan hunters’ motivations and expectations of deer hunting and deer management. The researchers established a theoretical framework for exploring these motivations, which borrowed from the field of criminology.

Factors influencing these decisions were divided into “instrumental” and “normative” categories:

Instrumental Factors: These decisions have to do with basic personal gains. Instrumental factors can include financial gains, as well as personal gains from simply having more enjoyable hunting experiences or outcomes.

Normative Factors: These are things that cause people to feel a basic obligation to obey or be supportive, regardless of whether or not they personally stand to benefit from these behaviors. Examples include moral norms, such as core personal beliefs about “the right thing to do,” and social norms, including behaving as our family and friends expect.

Keep in mind that there are a few instrumental and normative factors that agencies can more readily influence, such as how authority is used in a particular situation. How that authority is exercised strongly influences whether hunters will comply or not. This is where the trust comes in.

Building Trust

Photo by Michigan DNR

The theory about trust is that hunters are more likely to comply and cooperate with these control strategies (higher harvest and no baiting) if hunters trust the governing body.

In other words, trust builds a sense of obligation to authorities, even if immediate personal gains do not result.

“Trust in fish and wildlife agencies—as well as government in general—is perceived to be declining,” says Dr. Rudolph. “Rebuilding trust may be especially important when dealing with issues experiencing high levels of conflict. Agencies cannot easily and quickly shape moral and social norms, but gaining trust is a feasible way to intentionally gain cooperation.”

Dr. Rudolph’s research revealed the best ways to gain trust are through procedural justice, or the appropriate exercise of power, including:

  • Fair Processes for establishing regulations and compliance, including opportunities for input
  • Neutral Authorities perceived to be objective in their decision making
  • Justified Decisions explained as derived from all information and input that was considered

Michigan’s research found that providing opportunities for hunters’ input was not as important to building trust as neutrality and justification. “Citizens may only demand opportunities for input when they do not trust authorities to make the right decisions,” explains Rudolph. “Or, perhaps citizens don’t see a benefit from providing input if they don’t trust authorities to be neutral and objective in their decision making.”


Photo by David Kenyon, Michigan DNR

In this case, gaining trust may be the only means for gaining cooperation of the Michigan deer hunters. Recreational hunters can’t be forced to shoot more deer, if they don’t appear to perceive it as being in their individual best interests. This suggests a need to implement changes according to the theory of trust, and progress from a strictly regulatory approach to a more cooperative approach in managing wildlife.

Currently, the deer population in Michigan’s bTB area has been reduced, and baiting and feeding the animals are much less commonly practiced. This has helped reduce the prevalence of the bTB, however, the disease is already well established so even greater reductions of deer population size and aggregation will be necessary.

“Actions of both trustees (e.g., commissioners, governors, legislators) and trust managers (agency personnel) may influence trust, and potentially promote hunter compliance, cooperation and support,” adds Rudolph. “All parties should be aware of this, and coordinate their roles and actions accordingly.”

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