A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park (National Park Service photo)
Wolf attacks on livestock boost the electoral fortunes of candidates of far-right political parties, according to a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study analyzed data from Germany, where wolves have been reintroduced in recent decades following their eradication in the 20th century. Wolf attacks on livestock, which were virtually unheard of prior to 2000, now occur hundreds of times per year.
The authors found that when a wolf attack occurred in a German municipality, candidates in the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party – which is skeptical of immigration, opposed to gay marriage and promotes climate denial – received a larger share of the vote in the following election. AfD candidates for federal office received a bump of just a couple percentage points, while state candidates saw increases ranging from 5 to 10 points. The results held even when controlling for various social and demographic factors.
The findings raise a question: Does a similar dynamic exist in Minnesota, home to the largest concentration of gray wolves in the lower 48 — and the subject of significant local fascination?
Here, for instance, is a map of verified wolf complaints in 2021, compiled by USDA wildlife biologist John Hart. Those complaints are concentrated in the northern part of the state, where the wolves live. The geographic distribution of Minnesota wolf attacks tends to look similar from year to year, and most of that part of the state — with the notable exceptions of Duluth, Cook County and Red Lake Nation — votes reliably for far-right political candidates like Donald Trump.
But that’s probably not the wolves’ fault, given the complexities of American politics.
“I have some skepticism that the wolf issue is going to be a deciding factor in any election,” said Christopher Chapp, a political scientist at St. Olaf college. In the U.S., at least, “Environmental attitudes are baked into partisanship already.”
Minnesotans’ attitudes about wolves, in other words, are likely to be a reflection of their overall views on the environment, which in turn heavily depend on their political leanings.
A recent survey in Washington state, for instance, found that the strongest predictor of support for wolf conservation was a person’s political affiliation, with Democrats far more likely to hold favorable views of wolves than Republicans. Farmers and ranchers, like rural people more broadly, also tend to hold strongly conservative views regardless of whether or not wolves go after their cattle.
Wolves also haven’t been a huge subject of political debate here, unlike in Germany. The animals feature prominently in AfD’s political communications, the study found, with the party running Facebook ads portraying wolves as a threat to the livelihood of German farmers.
In the U.S., by contrast, Chapp found that wolves are rarely mentioned in the issue statements put out by political candidates. One notable exception happened in 2008 when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was tapped to run as John McCain’s vice presidential candidate. Palin’s enthusiastic support for hunting wolves from airplanes became the subject of an attack ad campaign, which Chapp recalls as “fairly effective” in moving the needle among certain conservation-minded voters.
Nevertheless, the wolf study is a welcome addition to the growing body of research into whether and how wild animal aggression can influence electoral outcomes. A previous study, for instance, examined the political consequences of shark attacks — a topic thankfully less relevant to Minnesota voters.
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