What are Wildlife Value Orientations, and why do they Matter?

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is an animal that people value differently depending on the situation. White-Tailed Deer 6-Point Buck by Kenneth Cole Schneider. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Many people have different opinions about wildlife, even within the same geographical area. So, how can wildlife professionals predict how the public will respond to their initiatives? One useful tool is that of Wildlife Value Orientations.

Wildlife value orientations (WVOs) help to describe how people think about and act toward wildlife. In several papers, Dr. Michael J. Manfredo and his colleagues discuss a “cognitive hierarchy” that can predict people’s behaviors. These are:

  1. Values
  2. Basic Beliefs
  3. Attitudes
  4. Norms
  5. Behavioral Intentions
  6. Behaviors

Each level in the hierarchy builds off the previous one, and the constructs closest to “Behaviors” are the most useful for predicting real-world behavior. These constructs also change more quickly than those at the bottom – Values and Basic Beliefs – which are more stable.

Value orientations, then, are sets of values and basic beliefs focused on a specific object. In the case of WVOs, this focal point is wildlife.

A young, professionally-dressed woman standing next to a research poster.
A big thank-you to Charmaine Pedrozo for all of her help with this post! Image property of Charmaine Pedrozo.

Types of Wildlife Value Orientations

Various authors use slightly different terms to describe types of wildlife value orientations. In general, there are four main points along the WVO scale: mutualism, domination/utilitarianism, pluralism, and distanced.

Mutualism and domination/utilitarianism are the most frequently-used WVOs in wildlife-related research.

The first, mutualism, describes a set of beliefs in which humans and wildlife are relatively equal; individuals with mutualistic WVOs are reluctant to support actions that harm wildlife.

On the other hand, individuals with a strong domination/utilitarian WVO believe that humans are superior to other animals, and should be able to use them for their benefit. These people are more likely to accept actions that harm wildlife in exchange for human well-being.

Those with pluralistic WVOs espouse a mixture of mutualistic and domination/utilitarian beliefs, depending on the situation. Finally, distanced individuals don’t feel very connected to wildlife, and usually don’t think about it.

It’s important to know what people’s wildlife value orientations are, because this can predict where they’ll stand on key conservation issues more reliably than demographics.

Research Examples

Wolves and Bison in Germany

There’s been considerable research on WVOs. For instance, Nadin Hermann and Susanne Menzel carried out two studies in Germany.

In one study, Hermann and Menzel sought to determine which factors would determine if teenagers would favor the recolonization of wolves in Germany. In the other investigation – along with Christin Voß – Hermann and Menzel examined WVOs’ influences on Germans’ support for the return of both wolves and bison.

A wolf. Image by Marcel Langthim from Pixabay.

The scientists found WVOs to be important predictors in both studies.

In the paper involving wolves and bison, Hermann, Menzel, and Voß determined that participants with domination WVOs were less likely to support the return of both species to Germany than individuals with mutualism WVOs.

In the teenager study, the mutualism/domination distinction mattered once again. However, it was less important than the “wildlife appreciation continuum” and “ethical emotions” towards wolves.

Hen Harriers in England

St. John, Steadman, Austen, and Redpath conducted another fascinating study using WVOs. In this case, they focused on the controversy involving hen harriers in England.

To oversimplify matters terribly, there’s a long tradition of grouse shooting in England. Hen harriers sometimes eat grouse, which displeases hunters and gamekeepers. Thus, people tend to illegally shoot harriers, which isn’t great for the species’ conservation (Redpath et al., 2013).

A male hen harrier. Male Hen Harrier by Steve Herring. CC BY-ND 2.0

St. John and Co. found that WVOs helped to predict where respondents stood on the grouse shooting controversy.

Those with mutualism WVOs held more positive attitudes towards harriers, favored less intrusive harrier management strategies, and were less supportive of grouse shooting than participants with utilitarian WVOs.

Thus, all three of the above studies support the notion that WVOs contribute to people’s attitudes towards wildlife and wildlife management.

But, how might a wildlife professional go about changing people’s WVOs, assuming they wanted to? The answer is that they wouldn’t – at least not directly.

Changing Wildlife Value Orientations

Values and value orientations change slowly, but they’re not static. In fact, there’s evidence that WVOs in the United States are becoming more mutualistic over time.

As Manfredo and his colleagues point out, this is probably the result of broader, societal-level shifts. In particular, increasing mobility (frequent moves), education, economic well-being, and urbanization may be driving the growth of mutualism WVOs in the US.

Education is one of the factors that Manfredo, Teel, and Bright (2003) linked to the growth of mutualism WVOs in the US. Image by Ernesto Eslava from Pixabay.

Therefore, if we want more people to adopt mutualism WVOs, then we have to strive to create societies that work for everyone. We shouldn’t force anyone to move or live in cities, but there’s nothing wrong with giving more people access to quality education and economic stability.

In fact, this is the right thing to do regardless of potential benefits to wildlife.


In summary, wildlife value orientations describe groups of values and basic beliefs about wildlife.

Individuals with mutualism WVOs are typically more supportive of controversial species like wolves or hen harriers than people with domination/utilitarian WVOs, and more opposed to actions that hurt wildlife.

Thus, knowing their constituents’ WVOs can help wildlife professionals predict how the public will respond to different management strategies.

WVOs also appear to be linked to issues like economic stability and education. This means that if we work to create more equitable societies in which greater proportions of people have access to these basic rights; then, over time, more individuals might adopt mutualism WVOs. There’s no guarantee that this will work, but it’s worth a try.

After all, what’s wrong with a better future?

2 Thoughts

  1. Insightful article Josh.

    But I do wonder. What about people who’ve had negative experiences with wildlife? Say, shark attack survivors or villagers who share the forest with wild animals and routinely experience say, tiger attacks or snake bites. Would they still be mutualistic in their perception?

    The way I’ve understood it (please correct me if I’m wrong here) WVOs don’t have any marker to evaluate people who have been positive towards wildlife, but then change their perceptions because of their negative experiences.

    These people don’t become dominant either. Because they don’t believe they are superior to those animals; they’re just afraid of them.

    Do researchers have any way to measure this particular aspect in their studies? And how wildlife or science education affects these perceptions?

    Does any case come to mind regarding this; similar to the ones you’ve mentioned?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nisha, sorry for the late reply, it’s a very busy time for me.

      I didn’t see any mention of people who’ve had negative experiences with wildlife while working on this post. I imagine that such encounters might dampen their attitudes towards the species in question, but that’s not guaranteed: I’ve watched interviews with shark attack survivors who still respect sharks a lot.

      Someone should study this, if they haven’t already :P

      As far as wildlife or science education, the hen harrier study by St. John et al. suggested that such things won’t alter wildlife value orientations very much – at least in the short term – because WVOs are learned early in life and change slowly. Manfredo’s thinking supports this, since he claims that WVOs are mostly dependent on external, large-scale situations in a society.

      However, I suspect that wildlife and science education can change people’s WVOs over time: it just might take multiple generations of good education before we see major shifts in a culture’s WVOs.

      I’ve linked to all the papers I mentioned in the blog post above, so if you’re curious you can click on the links and view the articles.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.