A Western states survey shows that a majority of voters are increasingly worried about the future of the environment as the effects of climate change become more obvious.

On Thursday, Colorado College released the results of its 12th annual Conservation in the West poll, which surveys diverse groups of more than 400 voters in each of eight western states to gage their opinions about public lands, conservation, and environmental issues such as climate change.

Pollsters Lori Weigel of right-leaning New Bridge Strategy and Dave Metz of left-leaning FM3 - who have conducted the poll for all 12 years - said the numbers of voters, regardless of political affiliation, who said they were worried about environmental problems worsened by climate change had jumped significantly.

“Increasingly, we’re getting some pessimistic responses,” Weigel said. “Last year, we thought folks were feeling a little glum, potentially the pandemic bleeding into their senses about nature. But we see that’s been exacerbated this year.”

About 70% of voters across all states say they’re worried about the future of nature – including land, water, air and wildlife – up from 61% last year. In Montana, 68% of the 416 voters surveyed said they were worried.

“Last year, we asked them why they were feeling worried. Climate change was the number 1 reason people were telling us they were feeling more pessimistic. We have no doubt it’s somewhat the same this year,” Weigel said.

More than 80% of voters said eight environmental problems were at least somewhat serious, including poor growth planning, water pollution, loss of family farms and ranches, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, loss of natural areas and air pollution. At the top of the list is inadequate water supplies, with 90% labeling the problem serious and 71% saying it’s very serious.

Those percentages have jumped hugely since the first survey in 2011. Back then, only 40% said water shortages were a very serious problem. In fact, 40% or less thought any of the issues were a serious problem and only 50% were worried about family farms and ranches.

“Really, for all but two of these (issues), we’re seeing double-digit increases in terms of respondents telling us that that is an extremely or very serious problem,” Weigel said.

Missoula residents enjoy a summer afternoon on the Barmeyer Trail. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)
Missoula residents enjoy a summer afternoon on the Barmeyer Trail. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Notably, in 2011, only 25% thought climate change was a very serious problem, but this year’s poll shows that’s doubled. Three-quarters of voters agree climate change is at least a serious problem, and 65% now think some action is necessary to deal with it, up from about 50% in 2011. When you break that down into age brackets, it’s the younger generations leading the way with 73% saying action is needed.

Eight in 10 voters are worried about drought, extreme wildfires and poor air quality ramping up due to climate change while 70% dread extreme heat, especially in southwestern states.

“Coloradans and Montanans are some of those who are most concerned about more frequent and more severe wildfires happening in their states,” Weigel said. “And we’re consistently seeing folks really concerned about drought and consistent snowpack.”

One-quarter of respondents said they’d changed where or when they recreate due to changes in climate. Montana topped the state list with one-third of voters saying they’d changed, while Native Americans were the group most likely to have changed.

People also mention crowding as a reason for changing where they recreate, so it makes sense that 80% support creating more national parks, wildlife refuges and monuments.

“I do think we’re seeing people saying crowding and more people coming in is changing how they recreate,” Weigel said. “I think it’s also striking that almost a quarter of the voters say they’ve lived in their state 15 years or less. So there’s definitely been changes.”

A view of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain through melting snow and ice at the origin of Reynolds Creek near Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, Montana. (Joe Giersch/USGS)
A view of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain through melting snow and ice at the origin of Reynolds Creek near Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, Montana. (Joe Giersch/USGS)

With voters rating environmental issues so high in importance, it’s not surprising that voters say they pay attention to where political candidates stand on issues, even though the political rhetoric sometimes doesn’t seem to reflect that. In 2016, 75% of voters said a politician’s stance on the environment was important and this year, that jumped to 86%.

“The numbers are among the highest we have seen,” Metz said. “In addition, more than 2 in 5 say it will be a primary factor in making up their minds. In all respects, the breadth and intensity of that sentiment is significantly greater than what we saw in 2016. And given our highly polarized political times, it is remarkable that this sentiment cuts across all sides of the political aisle. So voters are watching.”

Voters may be watching, but what happens at the local level sometimes appears to be far different from the national level. While politicians take note of the poll results, not all politicians use them for their decisions.

“Especially in conservation, the numbers we get when we talk to the broad population will differ from those that people hear when a small group of highly interested constituents come to a meeting or hearing. That small vocal group can sometimes have an outsized presence in elected officials’ minds and they think it may represent a broader community. And a poll can sometimes say, “No, that’s not the case,” Metz said.

Weigel said that one year, the poll asked voters whether they approved of their Congressional delegations’ action on environmental issues. They ended up dropping the question because too many voters didn’t know what their federal representatives did.

The poll was conducted in January and had a 2% margin of error West-wide and a 5% margin of error for any one state.

Contact Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.