Research: The eroding social license to hunt carnivores

A new study draws on the ‘Social License to Operate’ model of resource management policy to illustrate how social and political processes used by stakeholders can exert influence on regulators.

A new study suggests killing predators like wolves, grizzly bears, and cougars for trophy is a potential threat not only to these sensitive animals, but also to other hunters. 

Researchers from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Universities of Victoria and Wisconsin – Madison illustrate how the public are increasingly revoking the social license to hunt large carnivores.

Led by Raincoast Science Director, Dr. Chris Darimont, the team published their findings in an open access paper in the peer-reviewed journal, Conservation Biology, “Large carnivore hunting and the social license to hunt.”

Borrowing from the social license to operate framework in stakeholder theory, the authors have proposed a model to better understand how communities can grant, sustain, or withhold informal permission for hunting activities. In this model, hunters are not stakeholders; like in other resource extraction scenarios, like logging, they are operators.1

Although strongly and consistently supporting hunting in the acquisition of food, evidence suggests that public stakeholders do not deem killing for trophy to be justified.

“Large surveys tell us that the public generally shows strong support for hunting to feed your family,” says Darimont, “but not to feed your hunger for status.”

The public opposition to trophy hunting is now commonly expressed on social media, with increasing effect. Their challenges can compel policy makers, politicians, and businesses to change policy about how, and if, carnivores can continue to be hunted. 

In British Columbia, despite the provincial government arguing for decades that the hunt was sustainable, they cancelled it in 2017 following persistent public pressure, strong public polling (see figure 1; below), and citing the role of misaligned public values in their decision. The research team believes that similar changes to hunting policy could occur with time, including the potential banning of wolf hunting.2


Darimont, C.T., Hall, H., Eckert, L., Mihalik, I., Artelle, K., Treves, A. and Paquet, P.C. (2021), Large carnivore hunting and the social license to hunt. Conservation Biology.


The social license to operate framework considers how society grants or withholds informal permission for resource extractors to exploit publicly owned resources. We developed a modified model, which we refer to as the social license to hunt (SLH). In it we similarly consider hunters as operators, given that wildlife are legally considered public resources in North America and Europe. We applied the SLH model to examine the controversial hunting of large carnivores, which are frequently killed for trophies. Killing for trophies is widespread, but undertaken by a minority of hunters, and can pose threats to the SLH for trophy‐seeking carnivore hunters and potentially beyond. Societal opposition to large carnivore hunting relates not only to conservation concerns but also to misalignment between killing for trophies and dominant public values and attitudes concerning the treatment of animals. We summarized cases related to the killing of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), wolves (Canis lupus), and other large carnivores in Canada, the United States, and Europe to illustrate how opposition to large carnivore hunting, now expressed primarily on social media, can exert rapid and significant pressure on policy makers and politicians. Evidence of the potential for transformative change to wildlife management and conservation includes proposed and realized changes to legislation, business practice, and wildlife policy, including the banning of some large carnivore hunts. Given that policy is ultimately shaped by societal values and attitudes, research gaps include developing increased insight into public support of various hunting policies beyond that derived from monitoring of social media and public polling. Informed by increased evidence, the SLH model can provide a conceptual foundation for predicting the likelihood of transient versus enduring changes to wildlife conservation policy and practice for a wide variety of taxa and contexts.

Figure 1

Figure of public opinion polls in BC, showing opposition to sport/trophy hunting.
Public opinion polls in British Columbia, Canada, showing opposition to sport and trophy hunting (of bears and in general). Where reported, polls had margins of error range from 2.2% to 3.7% (Supporting Information).


Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, U.S.A.
Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sidney, British Columbia, Canada

  1. Indigenous Peoples have inherent and inalienable rights to hunt, which are not subject to a framework (and colonial laws) that consider wildlife as publicly-owned resources. Therefore, they are not considered ‘operators’.
  2. Neither the authors nor Raincoast opposes hunting for food. In fact, several members of the research team are food hunters and fishers.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.