People's attitudes about wildlife vary greatly between rural and urban residents, by geographic regions and education, gender and ethnic background, says a Yale University specialist who recently visited Utah State University.
Those attitudes, often underappreciated, are a critical factor in management, said Stephen Kellert of Yale's school of forestry and environmental studies."We tend to underemphasize the socioeconomic context of animal extinction and endangered species," he said. "We're preoccupied with biological solutions, and our desire for a quick fix."
Kellert is trained both as a sociologist and biologist, and studies people's attitudes about wildlife and other natural resource issues.
He said, for instance, that well-educated blacks are far less interested in conservation issues than their white counterparts.
"The experience of slavery was traumatizing. The successful black is seen as an urban black. They have distanced themselves from the land and see environmental issues as a preoccupation of whites that don't have anything better to do," he said.
"The Achilles' heel of the environmental movement is that it is seen as irrelevant. Its value hasn't been defined and brought off persuasively."
He sees the greatest regional differences in attitudes in the South, Alaska and the Rocky Mountain states.
In the West, people appreciate the recreational and aesthetic aspects of natural resources and score higher on tests that measure knowledge about animals. However, their views are also highly "dominionistic" - that is, they believe in human manipulation of the landscape.
Attitudes also vary within groups, Kellert said. For 15 percent of hunters, hunting is a return to nature. For 30-40 percent, it is a social sport, a bonding activity. Most hunters, however, are rural poor. They wouldn't starve without hunting, but animals are an important food supplement.
Human numbers and technology pose a huge threat to animals, but animals also suffer from human "vertebrate chauvinism," he said. People generally appreciate big vertebrate animals more than small ones, or invertebrates.
"It's hard to elicit much sympathy for invertebrates or small vertebrate animals," he said. "Animals also have recreational values and humanistic values. Is the grizzly bear more important than the Eastern toad or the Socorro isopod? From a scientific and ecological point of view, the invertebrates are terribly important."
Eliminating small animals at the bottom of the food chain could have more far-reaching effects than the extinction of larger animals, he said.
"Extinction is an environmental impact that is irreversible," he said.
"We may come to regret it profoundly."