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Year : 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 592-618

Attitudes and Knowledge of Natural Resources Agency Personnel towards Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus)

1 Denver Zoological Foundation, 2900 East, 23rd Avenue, Denver, CO 80205, USA
2 University of Denver, Daniels College of Business, 2101 S. University, Denver, CO 80208, USA
3 Forest Guardians, 1536 Wynkoop St., Suite 300, Denver, CO 80202, USA

Correspondence Address:
Richard P Reading
Denver Zoological Foundation, 2900 East, 23rd Avenue, Denver, CO 80205
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009


Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) and their man­agement represent a conflict-laden, polarised issue. Until this study, we knew little about the attitudes and knowledge of agency personnel who work with this species. We used semi-structured interviews to develop a mail survey to sample 500 natural resources agency personnel who study, manage or other­wise work with prairie dogs. Within professional fields, land managers gener­ally displayed the most positive attitudes towards prairie dogs, followed by wildlife biologists/managers, and then personnel from agricultural fields. With respect to the geographic scope of their work, respondents working re­gionally or nationally displayed the most positive attitudes towards prairie dogs, followed by people working within states, and then people working lo­cally. Our results provide possible reasons for these differences, which can serve as a basis for reducing and better managing conflict. In addition, differ­ences between sample groups for many questions were small and not signifi­cant, suggesting room exists for finding common ground.

Keywords: agency, attitude, Cynomys ludovicianus, knowledge, managers, prairie dog

How to cite this article:
Reading RP, Stern D, McCain L. Attitudes and Knowledge of Natural Resources Agency Personnel towards Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). Conservat Soc 2006;4:592-618

How to cite this URL:
Reading RP, Stern D, McCain L. Attitudes and Knowledge of Natural Resources Agency Personnel towards Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). Conservat Soc [serial online] 2006 [cited 2020 May 29];4:592-618. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2006/4/4/592/49282

   Introduction Top

Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus; hereafter prairie dog) man­agement is one of the most conflict-laden, polarised wildlife issues in the US today (Reading et al. 2002, 2005). Helping to address this situation requires that we discover areas of common ground to permit movement towards com­promise and conflict resolution. Much of the conflict, as well as opportunities to resolve those conflicts, are based on values and attitudes. Attitudes towards prairie dogs vary from extreme dislike to intense support for the species and individual prairie dogs (Reading et al. 1999; Zinn and Andelt 1999; Lybecker et al. 2001). The values and attitudes of various stakeholders likely exert a strong influence over prairie dog management and the attitudes of another stakeholder group-the agency personnel responsible for prairie dog man­agement (Clarke and McCool 1985; Meier 1993; Licht 1997). Public lands managers, wildlife managers, and other field agents can have broad discretion in how they carry out prescribed policy and are influenced by their individual values and attitudes, as well as knowledge. Prior to this study, we knew little about their attitudes towards prairie dogs.

Prairie Dog Decline and Management

Historically widespread across the Great Plains from northern Mexico to southern Canada and the Rocky Mountains to the tall grass prairies, prairie dogs experienced a dramatic fragmentation of their range and severe popula­tion declines in the twentieth century (USFWS 1999; Miller and Reading 2002). Prairie dog decline largely resulted from large-scale poisoning opera­tions conducted during the first-half of last century (Miller et al. 1996; Dunlap 1988). Poisoning has continued to today, but at a greatly reduced rate, primar­ily because large expanses of prairie dog colonies no longer exist (Miller et al. 1996; USFWS 2002). However, a new threat, sylvatic plague ( Yersinia More Details pes­tis), began impacting prairie dogs in the middle 1900s and rapidly spread throughout most of the range of the species (Cully et al. 2000; Cully and Wil­liams 2001). Additional direct threats to the species include rangeland conver­sion to agriculture and, in some areas, development and unmanaged recreational shooting (Vosburgh and Irby 1998; USFWS 1999). Underlying all of these threats, widespread and prevalent negative attitudes of most peo­ple living in the western United States towards prairie dogs persist (Reading and Kellert 1993; Reading et al. 1999; Lybecker et al. 2001; Lamb and Cline 2003).

As a result of the serious decline in prairie dog numbers and distribution, several conservation organisations petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice (hereafter Service) in 1998 to list the species as threatened under the US. Endangered Species Act (ESA) (Biodiversity Legal Foundation et al. 1998; National Wildlife Federation 1998). In 1999, the Service found that the spe cies warranted listing as a threatened species under the ESA, but was pre­cluded from such listing by other, higher priority species (USFWS 1999). This so-called 'warranted, but precluded' designation set off a flurry of action by local, state, and federal government agencies. Many agencies that had for years been focusing their activities on prairie dog control, now found them­selves responsible for conserving the species. The resulting prairie dog­management crisis prompted a rapid response by many agencies concerned about the prospects of having prairie dogs listed under the ESA (Van Pelt 1999; BLM 2000; Luce 2001, 2003; Reading et al. 2005). Agency response to the proposed listing of prairie dogs varied, but most agencies moved quickly to prevent the listing (BLM 2000; Miller and Cully 2001; Reading et al. 2002; USFWS 2002; Luce 2003;), something they were ultimately successful in ac­complishing.

Following the warranted, but precluded designation, state wildlife agencies organised into an inter-state team (Luce 2001). Several federal and state agen­cies began taking conservation actions (see Reading et al. 2005). Yet, agency personnel focusing on wildlife often found themselves working at odds with personnel focused on agricultural interests, sometimes within the same agency. Differences between state wildlife and state agricultural agency prai­rie dog designations reveal the roots of inter-agency conflict over prairie dogs. While many states moved to give prairie dogs a conservation designation, ag­ricultural agencies in eight of the eleven black-tailed prairie dog states con­tinue to list them as 'pest' species and ten of the eleven continue to allow or mandate lethal control.

Conflicts appear to derive from different perspectives regarding the effi­cacy and fairness of the ESA; disagreements over who should control wildlife management; the federal government, states or local governments; alternative interpretations of scientific data; and divisions over whether prairie dogs are destructive pests or essential keystone species. Differences among agencies in their response to the warranted, but precluded designation likely reflect addi­tional factors such as agency cultures, missions and historical practices. Re­moval of prairie dogs from consideration for listing under the ESA occurred after this study was completed, but may well-influence beliefs and attitudes. We undertook this study to examine whether differences in the values, atti­tudes, beliefs and knowledge of agency personnel represent one of these fac­tors.

Prairie Dogs and the Human Dimensions of the Policy Problem

A value is a preferred mode of behaving (e.g. honesty) or existing (e.g. equal­ity), while an attitude is an affinity or aversion towards something (e.g. prairie dogs) based on beliefs (i.e. a perception of how an entity affects a given situa­tion) (Rokeach 1972; Williams 1979). Attitudes are thought to be influenced by values, as well as by beliefs, perceptions, context and knowledge of a situation (Rokeach 1972; Williams 1979; Brown and Manfredo 1987).

Individual values, attitudes, beliefs and knowledge can help explain behav­iours and the organisational cultures of relevant agencies reflect the aggre­gated individual perspectives of their members (Simon 1976; Westrum 1988). A better understanding of the values, attitudes, beliefs and knowledge of agency personnel therefore helps provide insight into agency behaviour and its effect on policy development and implementation.

Several studies have examined the attitudes of the general public and vari­ous stakeholder groups towards black-tailed prairie dogs, including rural and urban residents, ranchers and members of conservation organisations within the range of prairie dogs (Reading 1993; Reading and Kellert 1993; Reading et al. 1999; Zinn and Andelt 1999; Lybecker et al. 2001; Wyoming Agricul­tural Statistics Service 2001; Fox-Parrish 2002; Gigliotti 2002; Lamb and Cline 2003). Conspicuously absent has been an in-depth evaluation of the val­ues, attitudes, beliefs and knowledge of another stakeholder group-natural resources agency personnel towards prairie dogs, although Reading (1993) conducted some interviews with agency personnel. Yet, agency personnel greatly influence prairie dog management, especially individuals working in the land management, agricultural and wildlife fields (Reading et al. 2002, 2005). Agency personnel affect prairie dog management during all phases of the policy process, from intelligence gathering and promotion of different management option, through selection and implementation of specific man­agement options, to evaluating and altering or ending actions (Clark et al. 2000; Clark 2002). In addition, the actions of agency personnel can work to­wards conflicting goals, such as when wildlife biologists try to conserve prai­rie dog populations while wildlife control agents work to control them (Miller et al. 1996). Indeed, during stakeholder meetings agency personnel often complained that they worked at cross-purposes with people from other agen­cies.

We undertook this research to better understand the attitudes of agency per­sonnel towards prairie dogs. In particular, we wanted to learn about differ­ences in the values, attitudes, beliefs and knowledge of agency personnel working in different fields (i.e. agriculture, land management and wildlife) and at different geographic scopes (i.e. locally, within a state or tribal reserva­tion, regionally or nationally).

While several factors influence people's values and attitudes, the most im­portant appear to be personal experiences and the values and attitudes of liked and disliked reference groups (i.e. friends and enemies) (Chaiken and Stangor 1987; Boninger et al. 1995; Norton et al. 2003). As such, and given the his­tory of prairie dog management, we might expect that attitudes towards prairie dogs would differ among people working for different agencies, especially given the importance of their past experiences (e.g. how they perceived the impacts of prairie dogs on the resources they manage and constituents they serve) and the values and attitudes of people with whom they interact and identify. In addition, like all organisations, agencies with different foci attract, indoctrinate, and select personnel with divergent educational, experiential and cultural backgrounds that reflect the prevailing organisational culture (Simon 1976; Clarke and McCool 1985; Westrum 1988). Since self-interest and value relevance also affect attitude strength (Boninger et al. 1995), we would expect that these factors also create variation in values and attitudes. Based on theo­retical underpinnings, we hypothesised that people working in wildlife fields would demonstrate the most positive attitudes towards prairie dogs followed by land managers and then people working in agricultural fields. We further hypothesised that people working regionally or nationally would display more positive attitudes towards prairie dogs, followed by individuals working within a state or tribal reservation, and then people working locally.

Our hope is that the insight provided by this study will help stakeholders involved in prairie dog management better manage conflicts and overcome policy stalemates that arise out of differences in values and attitudes towards the species. Understanding value and attitude differences may help stake­holders develop a political and inter-organisational environment more condu­cive to effective policy-making and improved conservation management of prairie dogs.

   Methods Top

We conducted a sample, mail survey to assess the attitudes, opinions and knowledge of natural resource agency personnel towards black-tailed prairie dogs. Our sampling universe included federal, state, tribal and local agency personnel in wildlife, land management and agriculture fields who directly or indirectly study, manage or work with black-tailed prairie dogs. To sample these individuals adequately, we first compiled a database by contacting all federal, state, tribal and local agriculture, land management and wildlife of­fices within the current range of the black-tailed prairie dog. The final data­base, completed in autumn 2002, held the names of 1735 individuals.

We developed survey questions from semi-structured interviews that, in turn, were based on prior attitudinal research (Reading and Kellert 1993; Reading et al. 1999; Zinn and Andelt 1999; Lybecker et al. 2001; Fox-Parrish 2002; Lamb and Cline 2003), our combined knowledge of issues surrounding management of prairie dogs, relevant professional/academic literature and the popular media. We then conducted a mix of extensive (40-100 minutes) tele­phone (n = 6) and in-person (n = 20) interviews with twenty-six individuals to better elucidate the issues and attitudinal differences surrounding prairie dogs and their management [Table 1]. With the consent of the interviewees, we tape recorded all interviews that we later transcribed. We used the results from the interviews to develop a comprehensive survey and provide greater context to our analysis. We conducted a structured, mail survey following Dillman (2000). We pre-tested an early version of the questionnaire on twelve individuals with different backgrounds (i.e. from different states, with varying education levels, and working in different occupations) to obtain a wide range of comments on our methods, potential biases and comprehensiveness. For some of these individuals we administered the questionnaire verbally to elicit more immediate responses.

The final version of the questionnaire was divided into four sections. In the first section, we used a seven-point Likert format of response options for atti­tude and opinion questions about prairie dogs, prairie dog management and related topics. The second section tested people's perceptions about prairie dogs and related issues. For each question we provided a variety of answers and asked people to choose the one that most closely represented their own perceptions. We used ten true/false questions in the third section to develop a knowledge scale about black-tailed prairie dogs. Following survey administra­tion, we decided that one question was ambiguous and so excluded it from further analysis. We awarded two points for a correct answer, one point if the respondent realised he or she did not know the answer to a question and no points for an incorrect answer. We then standardised the knowledge scale on a 100-point scale. In the fourth section, we asked a variety of demographic questions.

We attempted to avoid bias in two ways. Within a single questionnaire we attempted to assess attitudes and opinions by including an approximately even mix of statements worded positively and negatively with respect to prairie dogs. To further reduce the possibility of bias due to the wording of attitude and opinion statements, we used two versions of the questionnaire. Each ver­sion of the questionnaire included oppositely worded statements (i.e. we changed statements worded positively towards prairie dogs to statements worded negatively towards the species and vice versa). For example, half of the questionnaires read 'The ESA is an effective tool for conserving imperiled species' while the other half read 'The ESA is not an effective tool for con­serving imperiled species' (italics added). Similarly, half of the questionnaires read 'Prairie dog populations are too low' while the other half read 'Prairie dog populations are too high' (italics added). Employing two versions of the questionnaire also allowed us to test for, and remove, any bias in responses based on the wording of statements. [1] We mailed 250 copies of each version of the questionnaire to randomly selected individuals (i.e. 500 total) from our da­tabase.

We randomly selected 500 individuals to participate. Of these, we initially identified 235 recipients as federal agency personnel (many of whose work was not national in scope), 174 as state and tribal agency personnel and ninety-one as local agency personnel. However, we allowed participants to self-identify themselves with respect to their occupations, fields and the geo­graphic scope of their work for analyses. We mailed an advance letter inform­ing selected individuals about the purpose of the survey, asking them to look for the questionnaire, assuring them of the complete confidentiality of their responses and requesting their assistance in its completion. One week after the advance letter, we mailed the sixty-eight-question questionnaire, along with an explanatory letter, self-addressed, stamped return envelope and a card for respondents to request the survey results. We sent a reminder letter after an additional 2 weeks. We mailed a second questionnaire to non-respondents 1 month after the initial mailing.

We constructed four attitude scales based on principal component and fac­tor analyses of the individual attitude questions. The scales include four to nine questions addressing a similar basic attitude towards prairie dogs (Ap­pendix). We named the scales after the most common concepts covered by the naturally grouped questions and the results from our in-depth interviews. We tested the scale reliability with Cronbach's coefficient alpha, which examines internal consistency based on correlations of items on a single scale. One­sentence definitions of the four scales are:

Support prairie dogs: Strong support for black-tailed prairie dogs and their conservation (a = 0.88).

Local people: Strong concern for reducing the impact of prairie dog management on local people and private property rights (a = 0.73). State's rights: Strong belief that states, as opposed to the federal gov­ernment, can better handle and should be in charge of prairie dog man­agement (a= 0.63).

Strict protection: Strong support for greater protection of prairie dogs (a= 0.80).

We examined variables for normality and homogeneity of group variance us­ing Bartlett's test. We compared responses to individual questions using (1) Pearson's likelihood ratio [2] tests or Yates-corrected [2] (for 2 x 2 compari­sons) for count data (i.e. number of responses within each category) and (2) simple t-tests and analysis of variance (ANOVA), with pairwise comparisons using Bonferroni post hoc analyses, for mean scores. As significance was similar using both methods, we present only the former here for ease of com­parison. We employed linear regressions, logistic regressions or general linear models to examine the influence of selected variables on responses. Unless otherwise indicated, we present all means ±1 SE. We set significance at P < 0.05. A copy of the survey instrument is available upon request.

   Results Top

Simply attempting to evaluate attitudes, opinions and knowledge with respect to prairie dogs elicited strong reactions, suggesting the topic was highly po­lemic. The mail survey proved to be controversial among some respondents. Two agencies, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (which includes the Colorado Division of Wildlife) and the Refuge Division of Region 2 of the US Fish Wildlife Service prohibited their employees from participating in the survey. Conversely, Region 6 of the Service actually encouraged employees of both the refuge and the enhancement divisions to participate in the survey. Several respondents (>10, although we did not track this) contacted us to en­sure that their questionnaire responses would remain anonymous and untrace­able both by the way we reported the results and through our database. Other respondents (not quantified, but <5) commented that they believed the instru­ment was biased, despite our efforts to minimise any such bias, as described in the Methods section.

We mailed 500 questionnaires, of which 455 were deliverable. People re­turned 311 questionnaires for an overall response rate of 62.2%, but our re­sponse rate for deliverable questionnaires was 68.4% [Table 1]. Not all questionnaires were usable for all questions. Response rates also varied by sample category [Table 1]. Response rates [2] by the geographic scope at which respondents worked varied from 53.8% for those working locally to 58.6% for those working within a single state/reservation to 67.2% for those working re­gionally or nationally [Table 1]. Response rates varied across professional fields from 57.3% for people working in agriculture to 61.5% for land manag­ers to 63.7% for people in wildlife fields. People from the southern plains were less likely to respond to the survey, possibly due to the factors discussed above. The response rate was lowest for people from Colorado (37.7%), far lower than the next lowest state, Texas at 53.3%. New Mexico (53.3%) and Oklahoma (55.9%) displayed relatively low response rates. Montanans (78.0%) provided the highest response rate by state, followed by agency per­sonnel from Wyoming (73.8%) and Nebraska (73.0%).

We aimed to assess differences in attitudes, opinions and knowledge among respondents (1) working locally, within single states or tribal reservations, or regionally or nationally and (2) working in different professional fields. We assessed these with respect to the agency involved and the position or job de­scription of the respondent. For example, we included respondents from the Natural Resources Conservation Service who worked in county offices among agency personnel who worked locally. Despite the fact that these respondents work for the federal government, they largely originate from the local com­munity and their work is generally constrained to a local area (usually a single county).

Attitudes towards Prairie Dogs and their Management

On average, respondents working within states or reservations and regionally or nationally enjoyed watching prairie dogs significantly more than people working locally, who were ambivalent [Figure 1a]. People working in land management and wildlife professions also enjoyed watching prairie dogs, dif­fering significantly from the more ambivalent attitudes of people in agricul­tural professions [Figure 1a]. The same tendencies held when we asked respondents if they thought prairie dog populations were too low [Figure 1b]; and if they believed prairie dogs were important to the environment [Figure 1c]. Opinions on whether the current population of prairie dogs is too high, too low or about right varied widely. Respondents working within states/ reservations and especially regionally/nationally felt there were too few (39.8% and 48.4%, respectively) or about the right number of prairie dogs (51.0% and 30.7%, respectively), while people working locally believed too many prairie dogs exist (65.9%). These differences were significant (j 2 = 69.23, df = 8, P < 0.001). Land managers thought there were too few prairie dogs (76.4%). They differed significantly (j 2 = 128.03, df = 8,

P < 0.001) from respondents working in wildlife fields, who thought there were too few (56.6%) or about the right number of prairie dogs (39.3%), and from respondents in agricultural fields, who believed there were about the right number (40.2%) or too many prairie dogs (50.8%).

Additional questions addressed attitudes towards different prairie dog­management options. Most respondents did not believe that prairie dogs posed a very large threat to humans, although people working in agriculture and lo­cally thought that prairie dogs posed a slightly, though significantly, larger threat to people than did respondents from other sample groups (i 2 = 66.36, df = 8, P < 0.001 and Z2 = 49.19, df = 8, P < 0.001, respectively). Agency personnel working locally in agriculture opposed poisoning restrictions on private land [Figure 2a] and believed that ranchers should not have to accept losses due to prairie dogs as part of the cost of raising cattle on public lands [Figure 2b]. Their responses differed significantly from respondents working in land management or wildlife professions within states/reservations or re­gionally/nationally, who believed the opposite. Similarly, respondents work­ing locally and in agriculture were significantly more likely to believe that prairie dogs can cause serious damage to grasslands, even if controlled than were other respondents (i 2 = 57.24, df = 4, P < 0.001 and 2 = 62.50, df = 4, P < 0.001, respectively) and that prairie dogs are not keystone species (,j 2 = 7.04, df = 4, P = 0.13 and 2 = 44.15, df = 4, P < 0.001, respectively). Only state/tribal workers disagreed that the changes wrought by prairie dogs could not be considered damage, because they are a native species [Figure 2c]. Respondents working locally in agriculture were also more likely, usually significantly so, to agree that prairie dog conservation threatens private prop­erty rights [Figure 2d]; that it is important to control prairie dogs on public lands to be good neighbours (i 2 = 14.84, df = 4, P < 0.01 and 2 = 19.93, df = 4, P < 0.01, respectively); and that local people think prairie dog man­agement will affect their property rights (j 2 = 24.92, df = 4, P < 0.001 and

2 = 51.06, df = 4, P < 0.001, respectively). People from all sample groups tended to believe that ranchers would conserve a large percentage of prairie dogs if left alone and that they would accept having prairie dogs with finan­cial compensation (P > 0.05 for all).

When looking at the costs of prairie dog management, most respondents working locally and in agriculture believed that environmental groups should pay the costs of protecting the species (70.2% and 65.6%, respectively), while the costs of control should not fall to the landowner (66.0% and 60.7%, re­spectively). Only 21.4-47.1% of respondents from other categories believed that environmental groups should pay the conservation costs and 8.9-37.6% believed that landowners should not have to pay for control. These differences were all significant (P < 0.001 for each comparison). Similarly, only 34.0% of agency personnel working locally and only 43.0% of those in employed agri­cultural fields thought that developers should be responsible for protecting prairie dogs on land they purchase, while 61.7-73.2% of respondents from other sample groups thought they should be responsible (P < 0.01 for both comparisons).

Respondents working in agriculture and locally were significantly more likely to view the ESA as ineffective (J 2 = 38.89, df = 4, P < 0.001 and ,2 = 13.80, df = 4, P < 0.01, respectively) and to oppose listing prairie dogs under the ESA [Figure 3a] than were other respondents. Respondents working within states/reservations were significantly more likely to view the ESA as hindering their agency's prairie dog management activities, whereas land managers were significantly less likely to hold such views [Figure 3b]. All re­spondents moderately disagreed that environmentalists want prairie dogs listed under the ESA to restrict land uses [Figure 3c]. Yet, when asked about specific land uses, such as development and ranching [Figure 3d], respondents more strongly agreed that environmentalists would use prairie dogs to restrict these activities. There were no significant differences (P < 0.05) among pri­mary sample groups for these two questions.

State/tribal respondents tended to be stronger proponents of states' rights. We found that agency personnel working regionally or nationally were sig­nificantly less supportive of states' rights, while land managers tended to be significantly less supportive of states' rights. These tendencies held when we asked if state agencies should have primary responsibility for managing prai­rie dogs [Figure 4a], if state agencies do a better job than federal agencies at managing non-game species (Z 2 = 62.28, df = 4, P < 0.001 and 2 = 37.58, df = 4, P < 0.001, respectively); and if local people prefer working with fed­eral or state agencies (j 2 = 36.87, df = 4, P < 0.001 and , 2 = 15.16, df = 4, P < 0.01, respectively). When asked if prairie dogs should be protected under state law, it was people working in agriculture and locally who differed sig­nificantly from other respondents in opposing such a designation [Figure 4b].

We provided respondents with a number of alternative prairie dog­management actions and asked them to rate how much each action would fa­cilitate conservation. We also asked them to rank what they believed were the five most important actions. Mean ratings and rankings were similar. Respon­dents believed that providing financial compensation would facilitate prairie dog conservation most (mean rank = 4.04 ± 0.22), followed by agreeing to control prairie dog populations that grow beyond a certain size (mean = 5.41 ± 0.21), keeping the species off the ESA (mean = 5.58 ± 0.22), providing information to educate local people (mean = 5.81 ± 0.22), and focusing recov­ery on public lands (mean = 5.95 ± 0.23). Respondents believed that listing the species on the ESA (mean = 8.88 ± 0.16), developing a vaccine for plague (mean = 8.65 ± 0.16), improving management of prairie dog shooting (mean = 8.60 ± 0.16), and developing non-lethal control methods (mean = 8.21 ± 0.20) would likely be least effective. In the middle fell state, not federal, control over prairie dog management (mean = 6.66 ± 0.22) and Candidate Conserva­tion Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) (mean = 7.55 ± 0.20). [3]

Significant differences appeared between all groups (P < 0.05) regarding the importance of various alternative management actions for prairie dog con­servation. Overall, agency personnel from all primary sample groups believed that financial compensation was the action most likely to facilitate prairie dog conservation, yet they differed significantly in the degree to which they be lieved this. Respondents working locally and in agriculture placed signifi­cantly greater value on financial compensation. People from most sample groups put a low emphasis-usually the lowest or second lowest score-for listing prairie dogs under the ESA. Personnel working locally or within a sin­gle state/reservation expressed significantly greater support for state control over prairie dog management than did personnel working regionally or na­tionally. Significantly, more respondents working regionally or nationally thought that providing educational information and developing a vaccine for plague was important than did respondents working locally or within a single state/reservation. Significantly, more land managers than respondents from agriculture or wildlife professions were supportive of CCAAs. Land managers were also significantly less likely to be concerned with keeping prairie dogs off the ESA than were people working in agriculture or wildlife. People work­ing in agriculture displayed significantly more support for state control over prairie dog management than other respondents, especially land managers. Respondents from agriculture were also significantly less likely to support development of a plague vaccine than individuals from other fields.

Attitude Scales

Four attitudinal scales examined respondents' degree of support for (1) prairie dogs in general (i.e. the Support Scale), (2) strict protection measures for the species (i.e. the Strict Protection Scale), (3) states' rights, as opposed to fed­eralism (i.e. States' Rights Scale) and (4) reducing the impact of prairie dog management on local people (i.e. Local People Scale) ([Table 1], Appendix).

We found several differences among the two primary sample groups (i.e. professional field and geographic scope) for all four scales [Figure 5]. Profes­sional field was generally the more important predictor of scale score. As we predicted, and consistent with the results on individual questions, respondents working in agriculture scored significantly lower on the Support and Strict Protection Scales than people working in wildlife or land management [Figure 5a]. Land managers scored significantly higher than other respondents on the Strict Protection Scale. Land managers scored significantly lower on the States' Rights Scale than did respondents working in agriculture or wildlife. Finally, agricultural workers scored significantly higher on the Local People Scale than agency personnel in wildlife or land management [Figure 5a].

With respect to specific occupations, biologists and law-enforcement offi­cers exhibited significantly more support for prairie dogs than people in other positions, as measured by the Support Scale (t = 2.24, P = 0.03 and t = 3.09, P < 0.01, respectively). Respondents in non-agriculture positions (biologists, land managers, managers, law enforcement and others) scored significantly higher than people in agriculture relative to the Strict Protection Scale (P < 0.04 for all). Biologists and managers scored lowest on the Local People Scale (t = -2.36, P = 0.02 and t = -2.06, P = 0.04, respectively). Finally, managers and law-enforcement agents were significantly less supportive of states' rights than people holding other positions (t = -2.30, P = 0.02 and t = -2.41, P = 0.02, respectively).

Results based on the geographic scope within which respondents worked also followed predicted patterns. People working locally scored significantly lower on the Support and Strict Protection Scales than respondents working within states/reservations or regionally/nationally [Figure 5b]. However, geo­graphic scope was no longer significant for the Strict Protection Scale when we held constant for demographic variables and professional field (P > 0.20 for both tests). Scores on the Local People Scale increased significantly from respondents working regionally/nationally to within a single state/reservation to locally [Figure 5b]. People working regionally or nationally scored signifi­cantly lower on the States' Right Scale than people working within a single state/reservation or locally [Figure 5b].


Most natural resources agency personnel believed they knew a lot about prai­rie dogs. Mean perceived knowledge among sample groups varied from 2.81 ± 0.25 to 3.09 ± 0.14, where 1 is the highest perceived knowledge and 7 the lowest. However, the actual knowledge scores were actually quite modest, with an overall mean of 58.0 ± 0.8% (range 22-100%). Perceived knowledge of prairie dogs was correlated with actual knowledge (F = 18.25, df = 1, 305, P < 0.001), but the effect was weak (adj. R 2 = 0.05; parameter estimate = 0.03). Respondents working at different geographic scales demonstrated sig­nificant variation (F = 4.58, df = 2, 299, P = 0.01) in their knowledge of prairie dogs, with people working locally (mean = 52.1 ± 1.12%) scoring signifi­cantly lower (P < 0.05) than both individuals working within a single state/ reservation (mean = 58.9 ± 1.2%) or regionally/nationally (mean = 59.2 ± 1.3%) [Figure 5]. Respondents working in different fields also differed sig­nificantly (F = 11.46, df = 2, 295, P < 0.001) with respect to the prairie dog knowledge [Figure 5]. People working in agricultural fields (mean = 53.6 ± 1.3%) scored significantly lower (P < 0.01) than both respondents working in wildlife (mean = 60.3 ± 1.2%) and land managers (mean = 63.4 ± 1.9%).

We explored these variables in more detail with a multivariate model that included age, education, gender, work experience, the population of the re­spondents' town of residence, agency position and geographic scope of work. Range conservationists (an agricultural position) scored significantly (t = -2.15, P = 0.03) lower on prairie dog knowledge than did law-enforce­ment agents, and the effect was large (parameter estimate = -12.52). Other differences among professions or geographic scope of work were not signifi­cant. When controlling for other demographic variables, knowledge exerted a significant influence on the Support Attitude Scale (t = 3.00, P < 0.01). Re­spondents who scored higher on the Knowledge Scale scored higher the Sup­port Scale by a factor of 0.16; a large effect across the range of knowledge scores (12.48 points), but a modest effect between different primary sample groups (at most 1.14 points by level and 1.57 points by field). Respondents' knowledge did not significantly affect (P > 0.05) the other three attitude scales.

Respondents stated that they received most of their information about prai­rie dogs from books and articles (especially technical ones), personal experi­ence, and from their colleagues in that order. Friends and family, television, radio and newspapers, popular articles and books and other sources were far less important sources of information. No differences existed with respect to the geographic scope at which respondents worked (J 2 = 6.63, df = 8, P = 0.58), but land managers got more information from books and articles relative to other sample groups, and people working in agriculture got more information from personal experience (,~ 2 = 32.83, df = 8, P < 0.001).

Demographic Variation

We included demographic questions on gender, age, education, years worked in the respondent's current job, population of the place of residence, and if they ever lived on a ranch or farm to assess the influence of these variables on attitudes towards prairie dogs or endangered species. We found a few general tendencies. The size of the respondent's place of residence and whether her or his family ever ranched or farmed made the greatest difference among demo­graphic variables. We found significant (P < 0.05) differences for 57.1% of attitudinal questions for both variables. Generally, people from more rural ar­eas displayed more negative attitudes towards prairie dogs than did people from larger towns and cities and respondents whose families farmed or ranched provided more negative responses than those whose families did not. Women tended to display more positive attitudes towards prairie dogs and en­dangered species than did men, although these differences were only signifi­cant (P < 0.05) for 29.4% of the questions we asked. Respondents with less than a Bachelor's degree (n = 18) expressed more negative attitudes towards prairie dogs than did people with Bachelor's (n = 175) or graduate degrees (n = 116), who tended to hold the most positive attitudes. These differences were significant (P < 0.05) for 32.4% of the questions we asked. Similarly, the only consistent difference among demographic groups with respect to atti­tude and knowledge scale scores was education.

   Discussion Top

Black-tailed prairie dogs are among the most controversial species in North America. Natural resources agency personnel hold responsibility for manag­ing these animals, but historically personnel from various agencies and work­ing in different fields embraced disparate goals and employed different, often contradictory actions (McNulty 1971; Miller et al. 1996). While some agen­cies, usually with agricultural emphases, were poisoning prairie dog colonies, other agencies, usually with wildlife conservation emphases, were trying to conserve them for black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) and other species that are closely associated with prairie dogs. Only recently have prairie dogs themselves become the focus of conservation programmes following the large declines and fragmentation of their range over the past 100+ years (Luce 2001; Miller and Cully 2001; Predator Conservation Alliance 2001; Reading et al. 2002). The divergent perspectives of government agencies on how best to manage prairie dogs and the intense polarity in public attitudes have pre­vented significant movement towards real conservation action. Federal, state and local agencies have held numerous meetings, developed a host of reports, and supported new prairie dog studies and management plans, but this activity has arguably resulted in few changes in actual management on the ground.

We hope this study provides knowledge that helps agencies with currently competing prairie dog-management goals, find areas of common ground, such as support for incentives for prairie dog conservation, upon which to forge more cooperative relationships. Greater cooperation should, in turn, help im­prove conservation management practices; lead to more sophisticated and ef­fective educational programmes that increase knowledge about prairie dogs among government representatives and the general public; and, ultimately, re sult in policies and actions that enable the long-term conservation and sus­tainability of prairie dogs and their ecosystems.

Our results largely conformed to our expectations. As predicted, we found that, in general, people working in agricultural fields held more negative atti­tudes towards prairie dogs than did land managers and people working in wildlife fields. In addition, people working locally displayed more negative attitudes than individuals working within single states/reservations or region­ally/nationally. Although more agricultural personnel work locally, our find­ings largely held even when we controlled for both of these effects and for demographic effects. Primary sample groups with the most negative attitudes towards prairie dogs (respondents working in agriculture and locally) also displayed the lowest response rates for the survey.

An agency's prevailing organisational culture influences the people it at­tracts to work for it and values and attitudes of those personnel (and vice versa) (Simon 1976; Westrum 1988). For example, the agricultural industry has largely considered prairie dogs to be pests that compete with livestock for forage and degrade rangelands over time (Miller et al. 1996; Dunlap 1988; McCain et al. 2002). These long-standing views have influenced prairie dog management and agency personnel. Frequent exposure to negative attitudes towards prairie dogs by the clients of agricultural agencies likely influences the values and attitudes of agency staff. Similar tendencies are common with other agencies, such as wildlife agencies that attract and maintain personnel who are more supportive of prairie dogs.

Attitudinal differences between groups varied largely as expected. For some questions, the differences were large and significant, while for many questions, the differences were relatively small. Yet, more important than demonstrating differences among agency personnel is understanding the bases for these differences as a first step towards reducing and better managing con­flict. Several issues addressed by our attitude scales differed significantly among primary sample groups. In particular, issues of states' rights, the im­pacts of prairie dog management on local people, and the use of strict protec­tion measures varied significantly across sample groups. Each of these areas represents a potential source of conflict. Programme control issues, such as states' rights vs federalism, often influence conservation and management programmes (Clark et al. 1994; Reading and Miller 2000). Prairie dog man­agement is no different. Maintaining states' control over prairie dog manage­ment (which means keeping the species off the ESA) already affects prairie dog conservation efforts (Reading et al. 2002, 2005) and significant differ­ences in opinion were exhibited in this study. As such, concerns over states' rights may well-influence many agency personnel's attitudes towards prairie dog.

In addition, most people living in the rural Great Plains hold negative atti­tudes towards prairie dogs, which they view as pests that degrade the range and compete with livestock for forage (Reading et al. 1999; Lybecker et al. 2001; Fox-Parrish 2002). As we allude to above, these negative attitudes likely influence the attitudes of agency personnel, especially those with fre­quent, direct contact with local people and those where such people represent the main clients of an agency. Past research has demonstrated the important influence of liked reference groups on a person's attitudes (Chaiken and Stan­gor 1987; Boninger et al. 1995; Norton et al. 2003). Our results support this hypothesis, as agency personnel working locally and in agriculture demon­strated more concern over the impacts of prairie dog management on local people. Thus, not surprisingly, respondents who demonstrated the least posi­tive attitudes for prairie dogs displayed the least support for using strict pro­tection measures for the species, such as listing them as on state or federal threatened and endangered species lists or making landowners or developers responsible for protecting them.

For many questions, differences between primary sample groups were rela­tively small and not significant. These findings suggest that there is room for finding common ground and successfully managing conflict by focusing on common attitudes first (Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000). Common or similar at­titudes provide specific areas on which to build collaboration and improved working relations among agency personnel (and people from other stake­holder groups). In this study, overall, respondents from all primary sample groups strongly valued wildlife in general. They also agreed that prairie dog management should focus on incentives, implementing conservation on public lands, and controlling populations that exceed certain sizes. Recognition that personnel from all agencies highly value wildlife could serve as a foundation for improved relationships. Collaboration between agencies could start with projects that advance conservation on public land and incentive programmes that protect prairie dogs while also improving attitudes about them. Successful initial collaborative efforts might then help agencies productively tackle more controversial management issues, such as promoting conservation on private land.

Providing opportunities and support for collaboration, and information about the best ways of collaborating may help agencies and individuals within agencies work more effectively together (Wondolleck et al. 1994; Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000). Even where conflict exists, the potential for improving col­laboration among agency personnel probably exists as long as personnel oper­ate with mutual respect for each other and work to manage the conflict to keep it from becoming unproductive. Indeed, well-managed conflict can actually stimulate innovation and creativity and help improve relationships (Wondol­leck et al. 1994; Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000; Reading et al. 2005). If con­flict becomes unmanageable, more formal conflict resolution approaches may be desirable (Wondolleck et al. 1994).

Trying to move from issues where common ground can be identified and decisions made to addressing more controversial issues where values and atti­tudes conflict will remain challenging. We believe that if society desires long- term prairie dog conservation, success will require cultivating more tolerant attitudes towards prairie dogs among both the agency personnel and the gen­eral public. This will be a difficult and slow process, but we have already wit­nessed growing support for prairie conservation, and even prairie dogs, over the last several decades.


We thank all those who took the time to complete or pre-test our survey or participate in our interviews. Special thanks go to Pete Gober, Bob Luce and Brian Miller for assistance with various aspects of the survey. Dan Rees as­sisted with the statistical analyses. The manuscript benefited greatly from the comments of three anonymous referees, Dr. Catherine Tucker and Dr. Kartik Shanker. Funding was provided by the Denver Zoological Foundation and the US Bureau of Land Management.[49]

   References Top

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  [Figure 1a], [Figure 1b], [Figure 1c], [Figure 2a], [Figure 2b], [Figure 2c], [Figure 2d], [Figure 3a], [Figure 3b], [Figure 3c], [Figure 3d], [Figure 4a], [Figure 4b], [Figure 5], [Figure 5a], [Figure 5b]

  [Table 1]

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1 StudentsæPerceptions of a Highly Controversial yet Keystone Species, the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog: A Case Study
Fox-Parrish, L. and Jurin, R.R.
The Journal of Environmental Education. 2008; 39(4): 3-14


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