Political populations of large carnivores

Case studies from around the world revealed patterns of governments justifying politically preferred policies by exaggerating, without empirical justification, the size or resilience of carnivore populations.

Mashup of maps and population distribution graphs overlaid onto wolf skull illustrations.

A team led by researchers from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the University of Victoria, and Simon Fraser University reviewed the scientific literature for cases in which independent scientists scrutinized government reporting of wildlife population sizes, trends and associated policy.

The findings are reported in an open access paper, “Political populations of large carnivores,” in the journal, Conservation Biology.

Case studies from around the world revealed patterns of governments justifying politically preferred policies by exaggerating, without empirical justification, the size or resilience of carnivore populations.

Such a process creates what the authors term, ‘political populations’ – those with attributes constructed to serve political interests.

“Given the political conflict surrounding carnivore population protection or reduction (Nie 2004; Chapron & López-Bao 2014), we contend that reporting of population data (abundance and trend) and associated policies are exceptionally prone to political influence.”

In one case study the province of British Columbia had long maintained a scientific basis for, and sustainability of, the trophy hunt of grizzly bears. But after a BC Supreme Court decision compelled that government to release hunting data to Raincoast scientists, that optimistic view was challenged. Using the data on hunter kills, peer-reviewed research by Raincoast and collaborators  detected persistent failure by provincial managers to keep grizzly kills below government-set thresholds. After publicly dismissing the concerns, the previous government then announced an expansion of the hunt in some areas, and continued to emphasize the province’s “huge and growing population”. Although this debate persisted for another couple of years, grizzly hunting is now banned in British Columbia.

The researchers also identified political populations of wolves – perhaps the most politically charged of all wildlife – in the US and Europe. In Sweden, where a strong hunting lobby exists, the country’s Environmental Protection Agency contracted academics to model the consequences of wolf hunting to inform harvest decisions. The agency subsequently removed sections of the report that had suggested the wolf population might be smaller than previously thought, maintaining an official population estimate that was known to be potentially inflated.

“Society expects governments to implement evidence-based policy to preserve wildlife for future generations, a responsibility often codified in law (Treves et al. 2017b). The difficulties of crafting sound policy, however, are pronounced for large terrestrial carnivores. Systems in which humans and carnivores share space are characterized by high mortality of carnivores, threats to human safety, economic loss, and political conflicts (Treves 2009; Ripple et al. 2014; Darimont et al. 2015). Despite common and substantial data deficiencies, estimates of abundance and trend are often central in justifying controversial policies such as hunting, lethal control, and strict protections.”

“We hypothesize that some governments and other organizations justify politically preferred policies by over- or underreporting without empirical justification the size or other population data of carnivore populations, creating what we term political populations (populations with ecological attributes constructed to serve political interests).”

Kyle Artelle, Raincoast biologist, postdoctoral scholar at UVic and co-author added, “If we accept that governments might often invoke science in defending preferred policy options, oversight by scientists would allow for a clearer line between where the science begins and ends in policy formation. This remains important here in BC where other controversial management, such as wolf culling, is still defended as “science-based” despite uncertain science, and without proponents fully disclosing other factors beyond science likely at play”.


Article impact statement: Reporting of population data and associated policies are prone to political influence.

First published: 24 January 2018

DOI: 10.1111/cobi.13065


Darimont, C. T., Paquet, P. C., Treves, A., Artelle, K. A. and Chapron, G. (2018), Political populations of large carnivores. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.13065


Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI,
Adrian Treves, Carnivore Coexistence Lab

Earth to Ocean Research Group, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, BC
Kyle A. Artelle

Madison and the Grimsö Wildlife Research Station, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Guillaume Chapron

Raincoast Conservation Foundation, BC,
Kyle A. Artelle, Chris T. Darimont & Paul Paquet

Department of Geography, University of Victoria, BC
Chris T. Darimont


We thank the Wilburforce Foundation.

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