Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Westerners are relatively consistent in their appreciation of wildlife and public land, but a recent poll registered the highest support for the prioritization of conservation over energy development, regardless of party affiliation.

On Wednesday, the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project released the results of its 14th annual Conservation in the West Poll, which continues to show that Western voters are overwhelmingly supportive of conservation and public land.

Each year, Republican pollster Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of FM3 join forces to poll voters in eight Western states - the early years started with only five states including Montana - on issues of public lands and conservation. And each year, the results are fairly consistent, although a number of trends have developed over 14 years, and some passed notable mileposts this year.

“We’re seeing the highest levels of concern ever. And it’s backed up by national research that we’ve done as well, where loss of habitat for fish and wildlife, loss of natural areas - just a range of issues have jumped to the fore in terms of people being concerned about it,” Weigel said. “We repeated a question about the future of nature. We have more people worried today than we have had in the past. Not a huge margin. But the general trend has been, yeah, there’s a problem here that we need to address.”

Almost 90% of Westerners say population declines of fish and wildlife and loss of fish and wildlife habitat are serious problems, up from 75% in 2020. Almost 60% say it’s a very serious problem. Even so, just 54% think the Endangered Species Act has been more good than bad while 37% are unsure.

When asked whether members of Congress should protect public lands rather than stress energy production, voters once again backed conservation but the margin was greater than ever before.

In 2019, when the poll went out to voters in eight states, 65% supported protecting clean water, air and wildlife habitat on public lands. That has steadily increased to the 70% who backed conservation this year. In Montana, slightly less - 67% - prioritize conservation, while 74% of tribal voters back conservation.

“Although this year’s numbers are the highest we’ve seen, the story is really remarkable consistency. Dating back to 2019, a span of time in which we have had a global pandemic, changed presidential administrations and had a lot of economic disruption, we nonetheless see consistent prioritization of conservation,” Metz said. “One of the things that’s even more striking this year is, for the first time, that sentiment is majority bipartisan.”

This year, the percentage of Republicans supporting conservation climbed to 52%, joining 72% of independents and 89% of Democrats.

Expanding the question to other things people would generally support on public land, 80% or more support requiring oil and gas developers to pay for clean-up and restoration; creating new national parks, monuments or wildlife refuges; reducing light pollution on and around public land; constructing wildlife crossings; and preserving 30% of the nation’s wildlands by 2030. Only 27% support removing protections to allow more drilling.

“What’s striking is both the breadth and intensity of support that voters offer for taking action to conserve lands in the West,” Metz said. “On four of (the seven policies), we had at least half of the voters telling us they were strongly in favor of them.”

When asked about wildlife migration corridors and the need for wildlife crossings, more than three-quarters of Western voters - and more than three-quarters of Montana voters - said conservation of migration corridors should take priority over economic uses of public lands. In addition, 88% of Montanans support constructing wildlife crossing structures along migration routes, with almost 60% saying they’re in strong support.

However, the Montana Department of Transportation has repeatedly resisted citizen suggestions to build more wildlife crossings and doesn’t want to spend money on them.

Some question whether polls have any relevance when political leaders and their administrations don’t seem to follow public preference. For example, Wyoming legislators are sponsoring a resolution calling for the transfer of all federal land except Yellowstone National Park to the state, even though the poll shows 85% of Western voters, and 67% of Wyoming voters, support creating more national parks, monuments and refuges. Metz said special interests could have their way without public opinion polls.

“The general public often doesn’t have the time to weigh in on these critical issues,” Metz said. “The value of research like this is an attempt to lift up the voices of the broader public and make them heard in a more significant way. When you sit down with an elected policy maker and tell them what the public thinks and you show them how broad and bipartisan the consensus is, it gets their attention. But it isn’t often that that data is brought to bear for them.”

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

A question about climate change produced another notable result this year: a larger majority of voters agreed that climate change is a very serious problem. Two-thirds of Western voters say the effects of climate change have been significant in their state, up four points from 2020, and 35% say the effects are very significant, a jump of 6 points since 2020.

The results for Montana are almost identical to those of the West overall, while slightly more residents of southwestern states say effects are significant. Metz credited some of the difference between states to partisan attitudes, because less than half of the voters in Wyoming and Idaho, which are deeply red states, think climate change effects are significant.

“Some of it is partisanship - especially when we get on climate change, some voters have a pretty knee-jerk response to that. There’s definitely some distinction by state. Given that Wyoming is more energy-focused, we often see some of the bigger distinctions in Wyoming. They are less inclined to view the related impacts as a serious problem,” Weigel said.

Drilling deeper into the data, the pollsters found a generational difference, with younger voters being more concerned about climate change. While more than 80% of Generation Z voters think effects are significant, with 40% saying they’re very significant, less than 60% of Baby Boomers say effects are significant.

“We’re clearly seeing some generational distinctions throughout the data. The younger respondents are much more concerned about issues like climate change, but not just that. As time goes by, we’ll see if they retain that concern level, or if they become (negative) themselves,” Weigel said.

Native Americans are similarly more concerned about climate change, with 75% saying they’ve noticed significant effects over the past decade. About 60% said effects were very significant.

Follow this link for full poll results.