Conservation and Society

: 2014  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 1--15

Personal Moral Norms and Attitudes Toward Endangered Species Policies on Private Land

Leigh Raymond1, Laura U Schneider2,  
1 Department of Political Science, and Center for the Environment, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
2 Department of Political Science, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI, USA

Correspondence Address:
Leigh Raymond
Department of Political Science, and Center for the Environment, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN


Research across multiple disciplines has shown that personal moral norms can play an important role in shaping individuals«SQ» attitudes and behaviour. Despite this, we know relatively little about patterns of support among landowners for either a personal moral norm favouring a strong, «SQ»intrinsic«SQ» right of private ownership, or a moral duty to prevent extinction. In addition, we know even less about the ability of such norms to predict attitudes toward species protection on private lands, especially for non-charismatic species with few qualities that typically generate positive attitudes for conservation. Results from a mail survey of central Indiana landowners suggest broad support for a personal moral norm favouring a strong, «SQ»intrinsic«SQ» right of ownership as well as a personal moral norm to prevent extinction, and that these norms are better predictors of attitudes toward endangered species policies than partisan identification, identification as an environmentalist, strong religious beliefs, or several other demographic factors. The results suggest that those seeking to influence landowner attitudes toward species protection policies should pay closer attention to the influence of these personal moral norms.

How to cite this article:
Raymond L, Schneider LU. Personal Moral Norms and Attitudes Toward Endangered Species Policies on Private Land.Conservat Soc 2014;12:1-15

How to cite this URL:
Raymond L, Schneider LU. Personal Moral Norms and Attitudes Toward Endangered Species Policies on Private Land. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2014 [cited 2020 Feb 27 ];12:1-15
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Research across multiple disciplines has shown that personal moral norms can play an important role in shaping public and elite attitudes and behaviour (e.g., Chong 2000; Tyler 2006; Steg and Vlek 2009). Much of this work has focused on the effect of pro-environmental norms on attitudes and behaviours in support of environmental protection (e.g., Steg and Vlek 2009). Very little of this research, however, has considered the relevance of specific moral norms about extinction or property ownership for landowner attitudes toward policies protecting endangered species on private land. This study addresses this gap by investigating the relationship of personal moral norms about preventing species extinction and protecting property rights with landowner attitudes toward policies protecting biodiversity on private property. Specifically, the study focuses on three research questions:

How widespread is landowner support for personal moral norms in favour of preventing extinction, and a strong, 'intrinsic' right of private ownership?Do personal moral norms about extinction or ownership predict landowner attitudes toward policies to protect species on private land?Are personal moral norms against extinction more effective than alternative justifications in generating landowner support for the protection of non-charismatic species?

The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) provides an excellent opportunity to explore the influence of personal moral norms on policy attitudes. Motivated in part by an explicitly moral goal of saving threatened flora and fauna from extinction (Petersen 1999; Olive and Raymond 2010), the ESA has engendered a long history of political controversy grounded in conflicting moral beliefs. More than half of all endangered species are found primarily on private property (Parkhurst et al. 2002), and protecting these species can require limiting property owners' ability to use or develop their lands in certain ways, sometimes without compensation (Arnold 2009). As a result, ESA critics mount passionate defenses of the moral prerogatives of property owners (Epstein 1998; Seasholes 2007). At the same time, public support for a moral duty to prevent species extinction is also common (Baron and Spranca 1997; Minteer and Corley 2007), with some advocating greater emphasis on this moral argument in the public debate (Sagoff 2004; Plater 1997).

Using data from a mail survey of landowners in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, we find broad support among landowners for both a moral norm against extinction and in favour of strong rights of private ownership, and that these moral norms appear to play a significant role in shaping attitudes toward different policies for species conservation.


Enacted in 1973, the ESA provides substantial protection to endangered species in the United States, as well as limitations on international trade in endangered species. The ESA protects species that are "listed" as either threatened or endangered. A species is "endangered" if it faces the real risk of extinction in all or a significant portion of its range, and "threatened" if it is likely to become endangered in the near future. Both of the federal agencies responsible for administering the law-The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)-and the public can petition for the listing of a species. The relevant agency (FWS for land-based species, or NMFS for marine species) then undertakes a 12-month scientific review process to determine if the listing of a species is warranted. No economic factors may be considered in the listing decision. If a species is listed, the FWS or NMFS must designate "critical habitat" for the species and devise a recovery plan (Stanford Environmental Law Society 2001).

The law's strong protections for listed species on private lands have created substantial political controversy and resistance among landowners (Sax 1997; Bean 2002). The law prohibits "taking" of a listed species on public or private land, with "take" defined as "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct" (Stanford Environmental Law Society 2001: 106). In response to pressure from property owners, the U.S. Congress amended the ESA in 1982 to allow for "Incidental Take Permits" (ITPs) in order to give landowners more flexibility. ITPs allow landowners limited violations of the "take" clause of the ESA in exchange for agreeing to a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) that includes other actions to be taken to protect the species or its habitat (Thomas 2001).

Although HCPs reduced the ESA's political controversy, they remain an imperfect solution that has fully satisfied neither environmental advocates nor property rights groups (Sax 1997; Thomas 2001; Seasholes 2007). Meanwhile, high-profile conflicts over species such as the northern spotted owl (Yaffee 1994), or the red-cockaded woodpecker (Lueck and Michael 2003) continued to create a backlash against the law. More generally, protected species have threatened urban and suburban development of private land across the country, also generating pressure to weaken the law's power over private property (Bean 2002; Elmendorf 2003). These political controversies have prevented the U.S. Congress from formally reauthorising the law since 1992 (although the law continues to operate through a series of 1-year renewals), and have motivated research to better understand the factors that encourage or discourage landowner support for efforts to protect species on private property.


To better understand landowner attitudes toward endangered species policy, we draw on the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA), a leading framework for understanding the causes of individual attitudes and behaviour. TRA scholars define an "attitude" as an "evaluation of an object, concept, or behaviour along a dimension of favor or disfavor, good or bad, like or dislike," where the object in question can be a physical item, racial or ethnic group, institution, or policy (Fishbein and Azjen 2010: 75-78). Attitudes have been shown to be an important influence on behaviour, along with other psychological factors including "social norms" (i.e., an individual's perception of what others think he or she should do in a given situation), and the behaviour's material costs and benefits (Wegener and Kelly 2008; Steg and Vlek 2009; Fishbein and Azjen 2010: 75).

TRA describes "attitudes" as being constructed from the "summation" of a variety of beliefs about a given object or issue (Fishbein and Azjen 2010: 97; see also Vogt et al. 2005). In this respect, a "belief" is an "association" of an object with "various characteristics, qualities, and attributes" (Fishbein and Azjen 2010: 96). Some of these beliefs may be 'factual' in that they are ideas about the belief object's empirical qualities. For example, a negative attitude toward endangered species protection might be founded in part on a factual (i.e., empirical) belief that protecting a species on private property will be expensive, or that the species is not actually endangered. By contrast, another person might have a more positive attitude toward species protection in part due to an empirical belief that endangered species offer important economic benefits for society.

In addition, some beliefs can be 'normative' in the sense of indicating what a person ought to do with respect to a belief object. Individuals hold many such beliefs regarding personal standards of appropriate behaviour, which some refer to as "personal norms" (Stern et al. 1999; Steg et al. 2011). For example, a person's negative attitude toward endangered species protection might be based on a personal norm regarding private property-that as a property owner, he or she should be able to use his or her land largely without restrictions. A person might also have a positive attitude toward the same policy because of a personal norm that it is morally wrong to put a species at risk of extinction.

The relative influence of norms on individual attitudes and behaviour in comparison to other factors, including material interests, remains uncertain. A recent review of work in environmental psychology suggests that material factors carry more weight in shaping environmental behaviour when the material costs and benefits of action are high, whereas norms are more influential when those costs and benefits are low (Steg and Vlek 2009). This pattern also emerged in a national survey testing the relative influence of material self-interest versus norms on an individual's policy attitudes (Chong et al. 2001). A larger body of work in political science and public opinion research argues, however, that self-interest has a small effect on an individual's public policy attitudes (Sears and Funk 1990; Clawson and Oxley 2008: 160). In addition, experimental work has documented many examples of individuals making choices consistent with personal or social norms despite substantial material costs in the lab (Ostrom 1998), and in the field (Henrich et al. 2004). Finally, political scientists have documented numerous cases of policy makers supporting policies that threaten them personally with material losses, such as white male legislators supporting affirmative action policies (Lieberman 2002).

In this paper we contribute to the understanding of the relative importance of personal norms in shaping policy attitudes. The paper pays particular attention to a specific type of personal norm: personal 'moral' norms regarding one's ethical rights and obligations. Most moral norms resist tradeoffs-they are moral imperatives that are not easily overruled or weighed against competing concerns (Baron and Spranca 1997; Elster 2007: 104). Such norms often rely on the concept of an 'intrinsic' right: intrinsic in the sense of being inherent to our existence as living beings, and outweighing or "trumping" competing considerations (Dworkin 2005; see also Baron and Spranca 1997; Elster 2007: 104). Based on an intrinsic moral norm, for example, one might feel obligated to speak freely or help another in need regardless of the threat of government penalties or other material costs. Thus, these particular personal moral norms could be called 'intrinsic moral norms', or 'intrinsic norms' in short.

How widespread is landowner support for personal moral norms in favour of preventing extinction, and an 'intrinsic' right of private ownership?

We know surprisingly little about landowners' support for different beliefs regarding species conservation, including patterns of support for intrinsic moral norms about extinction or property. Although some ESA defenders cite intrinsic moral norms against extinction to support the law (Sagoff 2004; Plater 1997), justifications based on other beliefs are also common. For example, a leading justification for protecting endangered species is an empirical belief in a species' 'ecological' value-its role in helping to maintain the functioning of a larger ecosystem that supports human life (Sax 2001). Other beliefs justifying the protection of endangered species include empirical claims about species' 'practical' potential to offer new foods and medicines for society (Ruhl 2003), or their 'recreational' appeal for those who enjoy viewing wildlife (Anderson 1998). Finally, some have defended species protection on 'symbolic' grounds; for example, arguing for protection of the bald eagle as an icon of American democracy (Sagoff 1974; Petersen 1999).

Arguments against endangered species conservation frequently invoke an intrinsic norm of private ownership (Olive and Raymond 2010). This intrinsic view of ownership involves a belief that ownership is a "natural right" that permits the landowner substantial freedom to use his or her property without government regulation. The intrinsic perspective on property is associated with the theory of John Locke justifying claims of land ownership based on productive labor, and has long enjoyed a privileged role in the legal and political culture of the United States (Hartz 1955; Nedelsky 1990). An alternative view considers property rights as simply a tool for promoting public welfare, to be adjusted by the government as necessary to further social goals (Raymond 2003; Friedman 2003). Environmental advocates often defend this 'instrumental' norm of property as a preferable alternative to the intrinsic property norm (Sax 2002; Freyfogle 2003).

Surprisingly little research has considered public support for either moral norm, particularly among landowners. A few studies suggest ecological arguments favouring species protection are most persuasive to the public at large (Kellert 1993; Czech et al. 1998), but do not separate out the views of landowners. Work specifically on landowners' environmental beliefs and attitudes toward endangered species policy has either been anecdotal (Mann and Plummer 1995; Koch 2002), or focused on commercial, rural landowners (Vogel 1996; Peterson and Horton 1995; Bourke and Luloff 1994) rather than urban and suburban property owners who represent a constituency of growing importance for ESA habitat protection (Elmendorf 2003; Raymond 2006). All of this work rarely considers personal moral norms against extinction, and only a few studies have examined landowner beliefs about the rights and duties of ownership (Brook et al. 2003; Jackson-Smith et al. 2005; Raymond and Olive 2008).

Based on the limited previous research and public discourse regarding the ESA reviewed above, we offer two hypotheses regarding landowner support for these intrinsic norms:

H1: Landowners will support an intrinsic moral norm to prevent extinction.

H2: Landowners will support an intrinsic moral norm of ownership.

In addition, we also hypothesise that landowner support for these two norms will be equal to or greater than support for other justifications to protect species or property norms:

H3: Landowners will support an intrinsic moral norm to prevent extinction as much as, or more than, other beliefs in favour of protecting endangered species.

H4: Landowners will support an intrinsic moral norm of ownership as much as, or more than, the instrumental alternative.

Finally, we are interested in patterns of support for both the intrinsic property norm and the moral norm to prevent extinction. Here, we have no specific hypotheses, but investigate a variety of factors that have been cited as shaping an individual's beliefs about property and environmental protection. These factors include political partisanship (Shipan and Lowry 2001), religious belief (Gottlieb 2006), self-identification as an environmentalist (Jackson-Smith 2005), working the land commercially (Peterson 1995; Brook et al. 2003), and having previous contact with endangered species, as well as other demographic controls, including age, gender, level of education, and income. All of these factors have been associated with different environmental or property beliefs, and are included here as possible explanatory factors associated with support for these two norms.

Do personal moral norms about extinction or ownership predict landowner attitudes toward policies to protect species on private land?

A long line of research has documented the apparent influence of "biospheric" values on personal norms, attitudes, and behavioural intentions related to environmental issues (Schultz et al. 2005; Steg et al. 2011). Some of this work has confirmed the importance of positive attitudes toward endangered species protection to increasing landowners' intentions to participate in species conservation programs (Brook et al. 2003; Sorice and Conner 2010; Sorice et al. 2011). Having identified landowners' attitudes as important to explaining behavioural intent, however, this work says much less about the factors shaping those attitudes.

Although some might be skeptical of the ability of moral norms to sway personal attitudes on this issue, moral arguments were prominent in the legislative debate over the enactment of the ESA in 1973 and remain common today (Petersen 2002; Olive and Raymond 2010). Scholars of religion and society have also described a religiously grounded moral duty to other species, including the "Creation Care Movement" representing more than 500 evangelical groups (Biel and Nilsson 2005; Gottlieb 2006: 233; Evangelical Environmental Network 2008). Based on this public discourse, there is good reason to think that personal moral norms about protecting endangered species should influence public attitudes toward ESA policies. In addition, given the prominence of property rights in political discussions about the ESA, it also seems likely that personal moral norms regarding the rights of ownership would exercise a significant influence over landowners' attitudes toward policies protecting endangered species on private land.

Few studies, however, have evaluated the association of personal moral norms about property or species protection with these particular policy attitudes among landowners. One study of rural landowners in Colorado found that support for an intrinsic property norm was associated with weaker support for species protection on private land (Brook et al. 2003). Another study of landowners in Indiana found that support for an intrinsic property norm did not preclude similar support for a moral norm against extinction (Raymond and Olive 2008). Neither paper tested the association of an intrinsic moral norm against extinction with attitudes toward endangered species policies.

Based on the existing public discourse on endangered species and the limited empirical work reviewed above, we formulate the following hypotheses:

H5: Personal moral norms about preventing species extinction will be significantly associated with increased support for policies to protect species on private lands.

H6: Personal intrinsic property norms will be significantly associated with reduced support for policies to protect species on private lands.

The specific policies used to test these hypotheses are presented in [Table 2] in the methods section.

Is a moral norm against extinction more effective than alternative justifications in generating landowner support for the protection of non-charismatic species?

ESA protection efforts and resources have focused disproportionately on a relatively small number of species that are widely perceived as attractive or "charismatic," such as the grizzly bear or the bald eagle (Waller 1996). Yet most at-risk species do not fit this description, and ESA supporters struggle to build public support for protecting these 'uncharismatic' species lacking broad popular appeal or obvious practical uses (Plater 1997).

The situation has led some to speculate that moral beliefs might be more effective in promoting species protection compared to assertions about a species' potential medicinal uses, or its vaguely defined ecological role in preserving the "balance of nature" (Sagoff 2004). An advantage of an intrinsic moral norm against extinction is that it applies equally to all species, regardless of their aesthetic, symbolic, or recreational appeal. For this reason, belief in this moral norm should serve as a relatively unwavering, baseline reason to support species protection compared to other beliefs in favour of species protection that depend on a species' attractiveness or utility. Our final hypothesis expresses this idea:

H7: Personal moral norms against extinction will be relatively more effective than other beliefs in generating support for the protection of non-charismatic species.


We evaluate our hypotheses using data from a mail survey of private landowners in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. This section reviews each element of our research design, including: case selection, instrument design and data collection (including possible issues of non-response bias), and statistical analysis.

Case selection

Tippecanoe County is a located in northwestern Indiana [Figure 1], roughly 60 miles from the state capital of Indianapolis and 120 miles from the major city of Chicago, Illinois. The county has 172,280 residents, many of whom are concentrated around the county seat of Lafayette and the sister city of West Lafayette, home to a major public university. The county is 68% agricultural land, 1 consistent with the northern half of Indiana, a state that grows large volumes of corn and soybeans for export to other parts of the USA and the world. Although 87% of the state was once forested, only 20% of forest land remains, mostly in the south central regions (Purdue Extension Office 2001).{Figure 1}

Tippecanoe County is a good case for testing our hypotheses for several reasons. First, the county supports multiple nesting pairs of the endangered bald eagle as well as several less charismatic endangered species. Second, there is almost no public land in the county, making it well-suited for a study of private landowner attitudes toward the ESA. The county also features a mix of agricultural and non-agricultural private landowners, allowing us to capture more of the suburban and rural landowners not engaged in production agriculture or other commercial enterprises, who are increasingly important to ESA management issues. Finally, Tippecanoe County is located in the midwestern region of the USA, making it an important addition to previous ESA research that has concentrated more on landowners in the western region of the country.

Although our sample is relatively small geographically, several factors suggest its wider relevance. First, Indiana is fairly close to the national median in terms of measures of political ideology, averaging a score of almost exactly 50 on a widely recognised 100-point scale of "citizen liberalism" over the 2003-2008 period (Fording 2011). In addition, the percentage of respondents identifying as "Republican" (42%) in our sample, is close to the percentage of identified Republicans (37%) nationally, and the percentage of our respondents indicating that religion was of at least some importance (78%) also comes close to national figures (71%) (ANES 2008). Third, our sample largely reflects the income and educational distributions of all Indiana and United States residents, as indicated in [Table 1]. Although the national and state figures in [Table 1] include non-landowners, and strict generalisation from our data to a national population is not possible in any event, we do believe our results are likely to apply to many other communities of landowners in the United States.

Instrument design and data collection {Table 1}{Table 2}

To pilot test our mail survey questions, we held four one-hour focus group interviews discussing endangered species conservation, property rights, and the protection of specific species found in Tippecanoe County. Sessions included groups with a wide range of perspectives on the issue of endangered species conservation, including: a student environmental club, a local community environmental group, the environment committee of the local Chamber of Commerce, and a group of farmers working in the county. Groups ranged in size from 5 to 15 participants, each of whom received USD 20 as compensation for participating. Transcripts of the discussions confirmed the salience of views about property rights related to species protection on private lands for all groups, as well as the salience of the various justifications for species conservation detailed in our literature review, including a moral norm to prevent extinction.

Based on the focus groups, we finalised our 12-page survey instrument. 2 Part I of the survey asked a series of "yes or no" questions about support for the ESA in general, and different justifications for species protection, including moral, ecological, practical, recreational, and symbolic justifications. Support for these five different justifications for protecting species was also measured using a 7-point Likert scale, with 1 indicating a justification was "not at all important" and 7 indicating it was "extremely important" as a reason for protecting endangered species [Table 2]. The middle of all Likert scales used in the survey was labeled as "neutral."

Part II of the survey, Questions on Endangered Species and Property Rights, asked about support for the intrinsic and instrumental property norms, as well as support for different policy options to protect species on private land. Responses to these questions served as the main dependent variables for our second set of hypotheses. Support for two alternative property norms [Table 2] was also measured on a 7-point Likert scale, with 1 indicating "strong disagreement" and 7 indicating "strong agreement" with this norm. Policy attitudes [Table 2] were measured on a similar 7-point Likert scale.

Part III of the survey addressed reasons for preserving particular species found in Tippecanoe County, including the fanshell mussel (Cyprogenia stegaria), the eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus c. catenatus), the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), and the bald eagle (Haliaeetus luecocephalus). These questions asked respondents to rate the importance of the same set of statements justifying the protection of each species, with answers on a 7-point Likert scale from "Not at all important" to "Extremely important." Finally, Part IV of the survey included demographic questions and a section for written comments. All demographic variables were either categorical (e.g., male, environmentalist, farmer), or measured on simple 5- or 6-point Likert scales (e.g., income, age, education).

We administered the survey to a simple random sample of 988 landowners in Tippecanoe County, generated from the County Assessor's final quarter (2004) tax records of more than 50,000 property owners in the county, excluding corporations and businesses. The up-to-date nature of the sample frame data resulted in less than 1% non-deliverable addresses. Following Dillman (2000), we sent four waves of mailings: an introductory letter explaining the project, followed by three mailings sent at roughly two week intervals with copies of the survey. 448 usable surveys were returned, for a response rate of 45.3%. The sample size allows us to generalise our results to the larger population with a margin of error ±5%. Because not all respondents answered every question, the valid N for specific variables and models ranges from 347 to 423.

A response rate lower than 50% potentially biases our data in unpredictable ways. To check if our respondents were systematically different from property owners in the county, we compared them to U.S. census data from 2008 to 2010 for residents living in owner-occupied units in the county. This data (presented in the last two columns of Table 1) indicates that other than being slightly older and slightly more educated, our survey respondents resemble the full population of housing owners in Tippecanoe County fairly well, making us less concerned about a systematic non-response bias in our results.

Statistical analysis and hypothesis testing

We evaluated our first research question by analysing descriptive statistics for survey questions documenting levels of support for the moral norm against extinction and the intrinsic property norm, both on an absolute scale and relative to alternative beliefs regarding property or in favour of protecting endangered species. To test which factors predicted support for these two personal norms, we ran multivariate OLS regressions using typical explanatory variables discussed in the literature: partisanship, religious belief, self-identification as an environmentalist, raising crops or livestock commercially, and previous contact with an endangered species, as well as four other control variables: gender, age, education, and income.

We operationalised six of these independent variables (male, Republican, very religious, environmentalist, farmer, and species contact) as dummies, and three others (age, income, and education) as interval variables on a 5- or 6-point Likert scale. The descriptive statistics for these variables [Table 3] indicate the demographic diversity of our sample: approximately half are Republicans, with the other half split evenly between Democrats and Independents. In addition, nearly half our respondents self-identified as environmentalists, 12% raised livestock or crops commercially, and more than three-quarters reported a personal encounter with one of the four endangered species found in the county.{Table 3}

Scaled variables such as income, age, and education were entered into the models as interval variables because they covered the full range of possible values and represented roughly equal intervals between values on each scale. To confirm that the relationship of age and income with support for either norm was unidirectional, we also tested our OLS models using a range of age and income dummy variables. In the few instances where results using a categorical version of income or age differed slightly from the models reported, we note these differences in the results section.

We evaluated our second set of hypotheses regarding the relationship of the intrinsic property norm and the moral norm against extinction with attitudes toward 5 different policies protecting species on private lands by using multivariate OLS regression models. Due to high levels of multicolinearity, we did not use two policy options in the survey [Table 2] in this regression analysis: "compensation for existing habitat" (Pearson correlation coefficient of 0.829 with "compensation for new habitat"), and "avoiding killing endangered species" (Pearson correlation coefficient of 0.925 with "no harm to endangered species"). These results allowed us to compare the association of support for each personal moral norm with attitudes toward various conservation policy options on private land, controlling for other factors. In addition, we ran models interacting numerous control variables with support for each norm, to see if those controls moderated the relationship between support for a moral norm and for a particular policy.

Finally, we used data from Part III of the survey to test our hypothesis regarding the relative importance of moral norms for justifying support for policies to protect less charismatic species. Respondents evaluated the importance of ten different arguments for protecting each species. We averaged mean levels of support for groups of these arguments representing the five general reasons for species protection summarised in Table 2. For example, support for the statement "The Indiana bat has an intrinsic right to exist" was averaged with support for two other statements invoking a moral duty to protect the bat in order to create a general measure of support for the moral norm as applied to this species. We repeated this process for questions applying the same justification to each species.

Cases with missing values on variables used in a given analysis were excluded listwise. This resulted in 355-359 usable cases for regressions predicting agreement with the two moral norms, and 347-350 usable cases for the models predicting policy attitudes. We removed insignificant variables from our models in a stepwise manner (using a probability of F-to-remove threshold≥0.05). As a result, our tables only report coefficients significant in the final model, to maximise the variation captured by our independent variables. All statistical analysis was done using SPSS version 19.

OLS regression was appropriate for our analysis because values on the dependent variables of interest covered the full range of possible support for an idea or policy, and were measured on a sufficiently detailed (5 points or more) Likert scale. Our data also met the required assumptions for OLS regression-the highest correlation between any of our independent variables was 0.46 (between education and income), which is well below the typical threshold of concern for multicollinearity, and Variance Inflation Factor scores in all reported models were well below 2.0. Finally, measures of skewness and kurtosis were below 1.0 for the unstandardised residuals of the dependent variables for all OLS models, suggesting no serious violations of assumptions of linearity. As a final confirmation, we ran ordered and binary logistic regression models for the same combinations of variables in [Table 5] and [Table 7]. The results were largely consistent with our OLS models in terms of the significance, sign, and relative strength of all important study variables.


How widespread is landowner support for personal moral norms in favour of preventing extinction and an 'intrinsic' right of private ownership?

[Table 4] summarises landowner support for the five justifications for protecting endangered species: moral, practical, ecological, symbolic, and recreational. The results are consistent with our first hypothesis (H1) that landowners will support the moral norm against extinction (mean=4.47 on 7-point Likert scale, above the neutral 4.0 position). Results from other survey questions also indicate that a majority or near majority of landowners in the study support this moral norm: For example, 57% of respondents agreed with the statement "we have a moral obligation to protect species from extinction," and 41% of respondents indicated their belief that "species have an intrinsic right to existence."

Support for the intrinsic property norm (mean=4.75) was also above the neutral score, consistent with H2. Although support for the intrinsic norm of ownership was strong, it was not unqualified. Two-thirds of respondents agreed with the statement "some restrictions on human activity, including limits on the development of private property, are appropriate for protecting endangered species," and a majority (52%) agreed "private property owners have an obligation to protect endangered species on their land."

The data do not support our hypothesis (H3) that landowners' support for the moral norm against extinction would be as strong as, or stronger than, support for alternative justifications for protecting species. Instead, the moral norm against extinction rated third in importance out of the five justifications presented [Table 4], behind ecological justifications (mean=5.74), and practical justifications (mean=5.08). On the other hand, the data support our hypothesis (H4) regarding greater landowner support for the intrinsic property norm over the instrumental alternative. Support for the instrumental norm was only 2.92 on the same 7-point Likert scale, well below the mean level of support for the intrinsic norm of ownership (paired samples t=10.78; P<0.001).

Several factors emerged as significant predictors of support for each moral norm [Table 5]. Self-identified environmentalists expressed significantly higher support than non-environmentalists for the moral norm against extinction-nearly a full point higher on the 7-point Likert scale (b=1.00, P<0.001). Age is also a statistically significant explanatory factor (b=-0.34, P<0.001), with older respondents less likely to rate the norm against extinction as important. This effect is also substantively important, as individuals in the highest age category (65 and over) rated the importance of the norm against extinction nearly two full points lower on the 7-point Likert scale than those in the youngest category (under 25). Finally, higher income is weakly associated with lower support for the norm against extinction (b=-0.15, P=0.047).{Table 4}{Table 5}{Table 6}{Table 7}

Contrary to their support for the norm against extinction, self-identified environmentalists were significantly less in agreement with the intrinsic property norm (b=-0.73, P<0.001). In addition, Republicans agreed significantly more with the intrinsic view of ownership (b=0.68, P<0.001), as did male respondents (b=0.48, P=0.012). Higher income (b=-0.23, P=0.004) and higher education levels (b=-0.35, P<0.001), by contrast, were associated with weaker support for the intrinsic property norm. These results are largely robust with regard to the inclusion of categorical variables for age or income, as well as to analysis using ordered or binary logistic regression. 3

Do personal moral norms about extinction or ownership predict landowner attitudes toward policies to protect species on private land?

Overall attitudes among our respondents toward the ESA were mixed, with a narrow majority of landowners (54%) answering "Yes" to the question "Do you support the Endangered Species Act," and a large minority (41%) agreeing with a question asking if the law is effective. In terms of specific policies, compensating landowners for creating new habitat or for protecting existing habitat were the most popular options presented in our survey, although limits on killing or harming endangered species on private property received nearly the same degree of support [Table 6]. By contrast, limiting development of private property with compensation received weaker support (mean=4.29 on 7-point Likert scale), and requiring landowners to pay an "impact fee" to develop their land was slightly opposed (mean=3.79). The least popular policy was requiring 20% of a parcel to be undeveloped without compensation (mean=2.64).

The results in [Table 7] show the consistent association of the moral norm against extinction with more favourable attitudes toward all five policies, from the most incentive-based (paying landowners for creating new habitat) to the most coercive (limiting development with no compensation for the landowner). All five models are significant (F values ranging from 15.99 to 54.37, P<0.001 for all F-tests), but exhibit relatively weak goodness of fit measures (adj. R 2 ranging from 0.11 to 0.32). In addition, the substantive effect of the norm against extinction on predicted policy attitudes is larger than for other control variables. Moving from the lowest to the highest level of support for the norm against extinction (from 1 to 7 on the Likert scale) predicts between a 1.20 and a 2.40 point increase in support for these policy options on a 7-point Likert scale. This makes the norm against extinction a more important predictor of attitudes toward each policy than any other independent variable except for the intrinsic property norm in models predicting support for the two most coercive policies: the "impact fee" and the "20% undeveloped without compensation" policy. All of this is strong evidence for H5-that a personal moral norm against extinction will be significantly associated with increased support for policies to protect species on private lands.

We also find support for H6 in [Table 7]. Support for the intrinsic property norm is significantly associated with more negative attitudes toward the three policies that require landowners to take uncompensated actions to protect species. In two of these models, the intrinsic property norm variable is associated with the largest changes in expected policy attitudes, predicting a 1.98 point reduction in support for the "No harm" policy, for example, for someone moving from the lowest to the highest level of support for the property norm. Contrary to H6, however, the property norm does not significantly (P<0.05) predict support for a policy requiring landowners to set aside 20 percent of their property from development with compensation, although it does have a marginally significant (P=0.05) negative association with attitudes toward policies compensating landowners for creating new habitat.

Finally, it is noteworthy that these two personal moral norms are more frequently associated with variation in policy attitudes in [Table 7] than any other factor, including partisanship, self-identification as an environmentalist, or raising crops or livestock on one's property. Several control variables, including income, political party, and religion, are rarely or never a significant predictor (P<0.05) of policy attitudes in these models. These results are also largely robust with regard to the inclusion of categorical variables for age or income, as well as to analysis using ordered or binary logistic regression. 4

As noted in the methods section, we also investigated if certain demographic qualities mediate the relationship between personal moral norms and policy attitudes with additional models including a series of interaction terms. In general, support for either moral norm had few significant interactions (P<0.05) with the relevant control variables in any of the models predicting policy attitudes in [Table 7]. For example, interactions between religion and either moral norm were significant in just one out of ten models, and interactions between income or political party and either norm never reached statistical significance. In addition, any significant interactions did not reverse or nullify the general relationships between each moral norm and the particular policy attitudes reported above. Model fit and significance were also basically unchanged in each case from the models reported in [Table 7], as were the coefficients and P values of the other significant variables in each model, except for a few variables discussed below.

The most common mediating factor for the association of either personal norm with policy attitudes was being an environmentalist. For example, support for the norm against extinction was less important in predicting policy attitudes of environmentalists than non-environmentalists for three out of the five policies: compensation for new habitat, no harm to species on private land, and the impact fee. In each case, the coefficient on the interaction term between " environmentalist" and support for the norm against extinction was significant (P<0.05) and negative, indicating a weaker relationship between the moral norm and policy support for environmentalists than non-environmentalists. In addition, the intrinsic property norm was more weakly associated with policy attitudes of environmentalists than non-environmentalists for one policy-leaving 20% of land undeveloped without compensation-as indicated by the significant and positive sign (b=0.20, P=0.023) on the interaction term between environmentalist and support for the intrinsic property norm.

Higher levels of education mediated the relationship of the norm against extinction with only one policy attitude: weakening the relationship between the personal norm and support for prohibiting harm to a species on private property. Higher levels of education also weakened the relationship between the intrinsic property norm and attitudes toward leaving 20% of a property undeveloped without compensation. Finally, being older weakened the relationship of the norm against extinction with two policy attitudes: "compensation for new habitat," and "no harm." Models including any of these significant interaction terms reviewed above had no major effect on other significant coefficients in [Table 7], except for causing the intrinsic property norm coefficient to become insignificant (P>0.05) in predicting support for the "new habitat with compensation" policy.

Is a moral norm against extinction more effective than alternative justifications in generating landowner support for the protection of non-charismatic species?

Finally, we evaluated the relative influence of moral norms compared to other justifications for protecting four different species to test H7: that moral arguments will be relatively more effective in justifying protection of non-charismatic species. We confirmed each species' perceived 'charisma' by asking participants to rank them in terms of their inspirational qualities and attractiveness. As expected, the bald eagle ranked highest in terms of these measures, with the Indiana bat doing slightly better than the eastern massasauga rattlesnake and the fanshell mussel, but trailing the bald eagle by a large margin.

H7 implies that moral norms applied to a non-charismatic species should be relatively higher in importance than other justifications compared to a charismatic species such as the bald eagle. The average scores for these summary variables for each species are presented in [Table 8]. Although ecological justifications remained the most important to our respondents for all species, moral arguments did rank relatively higher for the three non-charismatic species than for the charismatic bald eagle, consistent with H7.


Our results generally confirm our hypotheses, indicating support for both personal moral norms among landowners in our sample and the relatively strong association of those norms with a range of policy attitudes to protect endangered species on private property. We discuss the findings for each primary research question in more detail below.

How widespread is landowner support for personal moral norms in favour of preventing extinction and an 'intrinsic' right of private ownership?

Support for the moral norm against extinction was fairly robust among our sample of landowners, consistent with H1. Although our results confirm the findings of other surveys indicating the general public favours ecological justifications most strongly, support for the moral norm against extinction was positive and ranked ahead of two other prominent justifications for protecting species based on their recreational or symbolic value. The strength of support for this norm indicates the potential importance of moral arguments against extinction in promoting species protection on private land. In addition, the lack of a significant association between most control variables and support for the moral norm against extinction also suggests that support for the norm spans many socio-cultural divisions. At the same time, the lack of significant association between degree of religious belief and support for the norm against extinction raises questions about the potential to promote species conservation among deeply religious communities using a moral argument.

Landowner support for the intrinsic property norm was also much stronger than for the competing, instrumental norm of ownership, consistent with H2. This runs counter to many academic and environmentalist understandings of property as a malleable, political right. Our sample's slight over-representation of respondents with greater educational background makes the result more noteworthy-one might expect a more educated sample to show higher support for a more academic view of ownership. Broad support for the intrinsic property norm across our entire sample, however, belies efforts to dismiss such arguments as the strategic exaggerations or illogical beliefs of a radical minority.

Do personal moral norms about extinction or ownership predict landowner attitudes toward policies to protect species on private land?

Consistent with prior research (Langpap 2006; Sorice et al. 2011), landowners in our sample were more supportive of voluntary policies to protect species using incentives. The written comments of one self-identified environmentalist reinforced this point: "Let's face it, economics and capitalism runs our system. If the government decides endangered species should be protected on private land, then the government must shoulder the costs and reimburse the landowner…". At the same time, it would be a mistake to conclude that these findings indicate no support for regulating private property among landowners. Respondents supported policies to prevent landowners from killing or harming species on private property nearly as much as policies offering compensation for protecting or creating habitat. Again, this outcome is more noteworthy given that our sample is drawn from a politically moderate state, where support for environmental causes is typically weaker than in many other parts of the country. This suggests that a mix of incentive and regulation-based approaches may be a better policy option for gaining wider support among landowners.

Our analysis of factors predicting support for policies to protect species on private property also suggests the importance of both moral norms. Consistent with H5, moral norms against extinction were significantly associated with more positive attitudes toward every policy tested. Consistent with H6, intrinsic property norms were significant predictors of more negative policy attitudes toward four of the five policies analysed, with their relative influence increasing as the policies became more coercive. In every model, either the norm against extinction or the intrinsic property norm was associated with the largest range of variation in attitudes toward a given policy. The fact that other prominent control variables had a significantly lower ability to predict large variations in policy attitudes is also noteworthy in this respect.

The influence of these norms does not seem to be limited to a few specific groups. Analysis of multiple potential interactions revealed only a few significant mediating effects, primarily relating to environmentalists and the norm against extinction, and none of those interactions changed the basic relationships predicted by H5 and H6. The fact that other control measures such as age and education had a limited ability even to mediate the relationship of these norms with various policy attitudes, while other important categories such as income or partisanship had no mediating effects, also reinforces the relative importance of these personal moral norms as independent variables for predicting policy attitudes.

This analysis also illustrates how identifying and measuring support for specific norms among landowners allows us to fully evaluate the impact of norms on the policy process. Discovering that landowners generally found the ESA to be "unfair" and therefore tended not to support the law, by comparison, would beg the vital questions of "why" and "how" they found the law morally problematic or acceptable. In this respect, it is more useful to understand why individuals express a policy attitude, through measures of specific norms that could be associated to varying degrees with support for different specific options for implementing the ESA or similar policies. We saw in our review of the literature that scholars have rarely used specific personal moral norms to explain policy attitudes. Yet a respondent's moral beliefs about property or extinction were more important than commonly used variables like political party affiliation or identification as an environmentalist in predicting policy attitudes relevant to the ESA. All of this suggests that personal moral norms are a distinctive, measurable, and important determinant of policy attitudes that deserve greater attention.

Is a moral norm against extinction more effective than alternative justifications in generating landowner support for the protection of non-charismatic species?

Although our analysis replicates earlier findings that the public considers ecological justifications the most important reason to protect species, it also demonstrates that moral norms may have untapped potential to improve support for policies to protect non-charismatic species. Moral norms ranked third out of the five possible justifications for protecting species in general in terms of importance, but ranked second out of five for the three non-charismatic species in our sample. This is weakly consistent with our final hypothesis H7 that moral norms would be more effective in generating support for the vast majority of species protected by the ESA that lack the broad appeal of the bald eagle. At the same time, support for each of these alternative justifications for protecting any of the non-charismatic species in our survey was below the neutral level of 4.0 on the 7-point Likert scale, suggesting that even moral arguments may have a difficult time generating support among landowners for protecting such species.


Using data from a survey of landowners in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, we provide evidence of the importance of moral norms related to property rights and an obligation to prevent extinction on attitudes toward policies protecting endangered species on private land. The results indicate strong support for an intrinsic property norm asserting an owner's right to use his or her property largely without government interference. The results also document broad support for a moral norm to protect other species from extinction, although this support was somewhat weaker than for the intrinsic property norm. In addition, our analysis found these personal moral norms to be the most consistent and influential predictors of attitudes toward various policy options to protect endangered species on private land, even when controlling for a wide range of other demographic factors including partisan identity, identification as an environmentalist, strong religious beliefs, personal experience with endangered species, and raising crops or livestock commercially. The apparent influence of personal moral norms on policy attitudes also held across a wide range of popular and unpopular policy options. Finally, we found personal moral norms to be relatively more important to landowners as a motivation for protecting non-charismatic species, such as a bat or rattlesnake, than for more charismatic species, such as the bald eagle.

These results suggest the need for more attention to moral norms regarding extinction and property rights in research on landowners' attitudes toward species protection on private land. Prior research has tended to neglect the potential role of these moral norms in shaping landowners' policy attitudes, in favour of other more traditional factors such as partisanship, education, age, or being an owner of land used for food or natural resource production. This study shows the important relationship of these moral norms with policy attitudes across a diverse range of other socio-economic categories.

The results also suggest that policymakers, environmental agencies, and advocates might benefit from paying more attention to moral norms in promoting species protection policies on private lands. Although ecological arguments appear to remain most persuasive to landowners, moral arguments to prevent extinction are also widely supported and are good predictors of support for species protection policies. Greater use of moral arguments to promote species protection efforts might therefore be a useful strategy for agencies tasked with administering the ESA, as well as those trying to defend the law from criticisms by property owners in the legislative realm. This may be especially true for the challenging task of generating public or landowner support for policies protecting non-charismatic species. In addition, those seeking improved species protection on private lands should bear in mind widely supported intrinsic ownership norms as they design and promote new policies.

Although these results make a strong case for more research on the relationship of moral norms with attitudes toward protecting species on private lands, they also require several notes of caution. Support for these moral norms is likely to vary substantially in different communities and cultures. In addition, future work is needed to compare the strength of association of personal moral norms with policy attitudes compared to related beliefs about species' ecological and practical value, both among landowners and the general public. The results of this study indicate the importance of additional work along these lines, given the apparent importance of these personal moral norms in shaping the policy attitudes of this particular group of landowners.[70]


The authors are grateful for detailed comments and suggestions from Aaron Hoffman, S. Laurel Weldon, Rosalee Clawson, James McCann, as well as two anonymous reviewers and the subject editor for Conservation & Society. Any mistakes or omissions that remain are of course the responsibility of the authors. Funding for this research provided by the U.S. Geological Survey through the Indiana Water Resources Research Center. Purdue Center for the Environment Paper No. 1401.


United States Agricultural Census. 2007. Census of agriculture: county profile, Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Accessed on May 24, 2012.

A complete copy of the survey instrument is available as an online appendix to this article at;year=2014;volume=12;issue=1;month=January-March.

The results of the model predicting support for the moral norm against extinction are replicated when age is included in the models as a series of categorical variables, as the variable Age=25-44 is significant and positive (b=0.89, P < 0.001), while the variables Age=45-64 (b=-0.42, P = 0.035) and Age ≥ 65 (b=-0.68, P=0.007) are significant and negative. The results for the model predicting agreement with the intrinsic property norm are also replicated when income is included in the models as a series of categorical variables, with low income (under USD 30,000) being significantly and positively associated (b=0.84, P=0.004) with support for the property norm, and higher income categories being negatively associated with support for the norm, but at P values > 0.05. Other significant variables in both models are minimally affected by the addition of either of these categorical variables. Running both models in Table 5 using an ordered logistic regression results in the same coefficients remained significant (P < 0.05) with the same directional effects, except for Income becoming insignificant in predicting support for the moral norm against extinction (P=0.357) and Very Religious becoming significant (P=0.049) and positive for predicting support for the intrinsic property norm. In binary logistic models predicting basic support for each norm (with all scores greater than "neutral" indicating basic support for the norm), the only change in significance or direction of any independent variable was also Income, which became insignificant (P=0.633) in models predicting support for each moral norm.

Categorical age variables were only significant in one model: predicting support for the "no harm" policy-with respondents between 25 and 44 years of age being more supportive (b=0.49, P=0.02), and those between 45 and 64 years of age being less supportive (b=-0.40, P=0.03). In addition, only one categorical income variable (income < USD 30,000) was significant for predicting attitudes toward only one policy: "20% undeveloped land with compensation" (b=0.62, P=0.03). In the ordered logistic models testing the same variables as in Table 7, all the same coefficients remained significant (P < 0.05) with the same directional effects except the following: (1) the intrinsic property norm and the very religious variables became insignificant (P=0.174, P=0.179) for predicting attitudes toward compensation for new habitat, and (2) being male became insignificant in predicting attitudes toward the policy requiring 20% of land to remain undeveloped with compensation (P=0.074). Finally, in binary logistic models operationalising support for these policies as a dummy variable, with Likert scores higher than 4 indicating support, we also produced the same pattern of significant coefficients as in Table 7 with a few exceptions: 1) very religious became insignificant (P=0.133) in predicting support for the "new habitat with compensation" policy, 2) being male became an insignificant (P=0.274) predictor of attitudes toward the policy requiring 20% of land to remain undeveloped with compensation, while the constant term became negative and insignificant (P=0.263), 3) being a farmer became significant (P=0.037) and negative in predicting support for an impact fee, and 4) being a farmer became insignificant (P=0.354) in predicting support for a policy leaving 20% of land undeveloped with no compensation, while previous contact with a species becomes significant (P=0.011) and positively associated with support for such a policy. In all of these models except the one predicting support for the 20% undeveloped with no compensation policy, the constant term also became insignificant (values ranging from P=0.130 to P=0.263). None of these variations substantially affect our results in terms of our core research hypotheses.


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