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Maximilian Werner: Lawmakers decide based on emotion, not science

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) In this Jan. 27 photo, lawmakers conduct business on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City.

A couple months ago I went to the Utah Capitol to oppose House Bill 228 (the brainchild of state Rep. Casey Snyder), otherwise known as the Livestock Predators Removal Amendments. The bill was one of two designed to do what all predator-related bills are designed to do, which is to make it easier to kill predators while all but eliminating accountability.

Opaque, ill-defined and ecologically illiterate, these poorly written bills are emblematic of the anti-predator mentality of legislators throughout the West, where more and more predators are killed for non-evidentiary reasons.

On a very basic level I knew I wasn’t going to change the committee members’ hearts and minds. Many have built their entire careers on catering to the desires of the agricultural and hunting communities. On a rational or extra-tribal level, however, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Surely they were prepared to give serious consideration to the opposition’s arguments and valued the logic and science on which those arguments are based.

Given that the lives of hundreds of black bears, lions and coyotes were at stake, I held out hope that the representatives would subordinate their own personal beliefs in service of the larger truth. But the longer I sat there, the more I realized that the meeting was not designed to consider the bigger picture. It was designed to remain impervious to it.

After hearing testimony from those who supported and opposed the bill, Rep. Carl Albrecht made this observation: “We’ve heard from folks who represent science. I would state that those who live on the ground and live with predators every day and try to salvage their sheep herd, their cows, their calves over a period of 40 to 50 years as a family; that’s observation; that’s science.”

Albrecht’s comment undermines responsible policy-making by dismissing the single most reliable and accurate means we have of knowing anything. Livestock producers do indeed acquire a great deal of hard-won knowledge during their time on the land, but most of that information is related to how environmental factors — predators, weather, disease, forage — affect livestock production.

Wildlife biologists and ecologists are also interested in these factors, but they use the scientific method and conduct lengthy studies and experiments before drawing conclusions about what’s happening. We would be wise to consider both ways of knowing in our bid to address these complex challenges. Albrecht would have us value the subjective gleanings of personal experience above all else.

Equally indicative of an uncritical mindset was a comment made by Snyder in his closing remarks: “I would submit to you that those who supported this bill were not speaking in the abstract. This is real to them,” he said as motioned to the ranchers and herders who sat with their hats in their laps. “This bill has real implications to them. It’s going to affect them personally. ... So I would encourage my colleagues ... to listen to those voices and not to the voices that may not be impacted in a personal way.”

By suggesting that personal experience is somehow more important than the abstract, Snyder’s comment echoes Albrecht’s belief that observation outweighs science. But Snyder’s comment also alludes to another signature of uncritical thinking, which is the primacy of emotion.

By “implications” Snyder is likely referring to the trauma of discovering animals killed by lions or bears, and to how those losses threaten a livestock producer’s ability to survive. These are indeed real concerns, but making wildlife policy decisions solely on the basis of them represents a dereliction of duty by any reasonable standard.

If there is any doubt about Snyder’s standard or where his priorities lie, consider his emphasis on the personal — as opposed to the ecological — significance of predators. In an anthrocentric universe, wildlife management is about people. Animals are either resources or competitors, with nothing in between.

I struggle to understand why people show such low regard for predators but, as much as I disagree with them, unlike Snyder, I would not recommend that they be ignored. No matter how you cut it, it makes sense to listen to what people have to say and, when necessary, to change in light of it.

We can do so much better than to follow the example of the Snyder and Albrechts of the world. The work of scientists and critically thinking people everywhere can help show us how to overcome the self-interested limitations of our own minds.

Maximilian Werner

Maximilian Werner, Salt Lake City, is the author of six books. His seventh book, “Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns: Death and Coexistence in the American West,” will be published this fall.

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