WOLVES & PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS

WOLF NEWS #9

By Bonnie Bishop.

As a university student in the Department of Geography at Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland, research can take one many places around the world. For me, Thompson, Manitoba was not a place I ever thought I would end up. Before starting this project, I had a strong interest in human-environment interactions, particularly human interactions with wildlife. As I was deciding whether or not to do a master’s degree under the supervision of Dr. Alistair Bath, I had two projects to choose from – studying bison in Alaska, USA or studying a “Wolf Capital of the World” initiative in Thompson, Manitoba. It’s not common to see positive perceptions of wolves in the human dimensions field and for such a small place to take on such a big title. Besides, how often can one say they worked on a project led by an NGO (Spirit Way Inc.) like the “Wolf Capital of the World”? The choice was obvious. Of course, it’s not easy moving to a small, northern city that you’ve never seen before, but the reward of the experience was tremendous.

Before this project, there was no solid knowledge of whether or not public support existed for the Spirit Way Inc. project to identify Thompson as “Wolf Capital of the World” and/or a “Wolf Centre of Excellence”. The purpose of my research is to better understand public attitudes toward wolves and these two initiatives. My research would fill a knowledge gap and help considerations of key issues surrounding wolves, wolf management, and the economic nature of Thompson as “Wolf Capital of the World” or a “Wolf Centre of Excellence”. Phase one of the research took place in 2014 and was focused on local resident attitudes. Phase two took place in 2015 and focused on visitor and local youth attitudes. The questionnaire for all three groups of people had the same, pre-tested questions, which allowed for comparisons among them. The survey included 101 questions on various topics related to wolves and the “Wolf Capital of the World” and “Wolf Centre of Excellence” initiative. With ethics approval and permission from the Mystery Lake School District I collected over 800 questionnaires in the span of three months in 2014 and six weeks in 2015; enough questionnaires to be able to statistically generalize my results to the population of Thompson. After speaking to hundreds of people, I found that many residents, youth, and visitors support the initiative, but there still exists some questions and uncertainties. Approximately 50% of participants were in support of the “Wolf Capital of the World” initiative, while approximately 30% remained neutral. After speaking with many people, I predict that this uncertainty comes from a lack of knowledge about the initiative – something that is a work in progress for these types of projects. I believe that in time, this will change. The results I gathered should help to guide further educational efforts and decisions regarding the future of Thompson, as well as to identify where potential differences and conflicts may lie and to address those issues.

In my adventures, I met and spoke with many people about my research in order to find out what residents knew about the initiative, how they felt about it, and to learn more about Thompson in general. I learned about Thompson’s history, aboriginal culture, hunting traditions, and even how to make caribou calls to attract wolves. Of course, because my research was based on the ever elusive wolf, I never did see one in Thompson despite my patient early morning and late evening attempts.

In addition to my research, Dr. Alistair Bath facilitated related workshops in Thompson and in Winnipeg. Since 2014, two research reports, a workshop report, and several media interviews have been delivered. I have presented this research in many capacities including presentations to over 100 researchers and practitioners at The Wildlife Society Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba in October 2015 and to several researchers at the Pathways Human Dimensions conference in Nanyuki, Kenya in January 2016. Each time I present my research, it fosters an enormous amount of intrigue in Thompson and the “Wolf Capital of the World”. Between the research participants and the additional individuals interested, there exists a solid basis of support for the wolf initiatives being undertaken by Spirit Way Inc.

At present time, I have completed more extensive data analysis, and I am now in the writing process of my thesis, as well as publications for academic journals, which will reach a wide, international audience. Combined with the completed work, this will create knowledge mobilization for the “Wolf Capital of the World” and “Wolf Centre of Excellence” initiatives. Wildlife can often be an asset to diversification, and these two projects could help stimulate tourism opportunities, provide some economic sustainability, help give the city a more positive image, and provide entrepreneurship opportunities for local residents. I hope that my work will bring awareness to a community that I know has a lot of potential not only for tourism, but for research opportunities as well. These past two years have presented me with one-of-a-kind experiences that I am so grateful to have had. I’m not sure where my next adventure will take me, but I am definitely looking forward to completing my thesis work and will be following the “Wolf Capital of the World” in years to come.

To receive a copy of research reports, workshop reports, or more information about this research, individuals can contact Bonnie Bishop at bbish@mun.ca or Spirit Way Inc. at thompsonspiritway@gmail.com.