Analysis of the data is only just beginning and will take weeks, but a statewide survey recently conducted by a Hope College sociology class is already clear in one respect:  the two ballot proposals regarding wolf hunting in Michigan seem too close to call.

Proposal 1 on the state ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 4, concerns Public Act 520, with a yes vote favoring a law establishing a wolf hunting season, and a no vote disapproving of a hunt.  Proposal 2 concerns Public Act 21, with a yes vote approving granting the Natural Resources Commission the authority to designate wolves and other animals as game species, and a no vote denying the commission that power.

Running from mid September through Monday, Oct. 27, the telephone survey collected responses from 444 Michigan residents spread across the state’s 83 counties.  With a margin of error of five percent, the study found the yes/no split on Proposal 1 to be 44 percent/51 percent, with five percent undecided.  For Proposal 2, the yes/no split was 40 percent/51 percent, with nine percent undecided.

“Based on our data, I would not predict how these would go,” said Dr. Roger Nemeth, professor of sociology, who is leading the college’s Advanced Research Methods class in the project and has himself been studying the topic of wolves in the state for about a decade.  “If someone asked me, I would say it’s going to be a photo finish.”

Questions about the vote were just two among several the team asked as part of a larger project titled “Michiganders’ Knowledge, Attitudes, and Perceptions of Wolves.”  The nine students in the class, mentored by Nemeth, conducted the survey in partnership with the college’s Frost Research Center, which provided additional expertise, financial support and the calling facility from which the students contacted those surveyed.

The aim, Nemeth said, has been to provide a non-partisan, independent study that can help in the longer term, beyond the November election, as voters continue to inform wolf management in the state.

“Our intention is to provide a public service,” Nemeth said.  “We hope to understand what people perceive and know and how that affects their decision-making.  As an educator, I ultimately hope that we can find a way in our state for people to have accurate information behind whatever choices they make.”

Accordingly, some of the other questions considered how many wolves people think there are in the state, and where, and how people feel about wolves.

For example, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ latest estimates put the number of wolves at about 650.  A total of 25 percent of respondents had the right range, 500 to 1,500, with 27 percent estimating that there are fewer than 500 and 27 percent believing there are more than 10,000.

Most of those responding, 58 percent, knew that all of the wolves are in the Upper Peninsula, but 40 percent thought that they are in the Lower Peninsula as well.  A total of 19 percent correctly placed the number of domestic animals killed by wolves last year in the 10-20 range, while 13 percent thought it was fewer than 10, and 16 percent thought it was more than 100.  About 43 percent believed that the number of wolves had stayed the same or declined during the past three years (the total was about 680 in 2011), with 52 percent believing the number had grown.

The survey also found that most residents prefer that the state have wolves, with 78 percent somewhat approving or strongly approving and 22 percent somewhat disapproving or strongly disapproving.  A total of 57 percent of those who responded felt that wolves have a “more positive” impact on the state’s environment, with 29 percent answering “more negative” and another 14 percent uncertain.

A total of 33 percent reported having seen a wolf in the wild.  And 37 percent said they were afraid or very afraid of wolves, with 63 percent saying that they were only somewhat afraid or not afraid at all.

The surveyors promised participants that the questions would only require about five minutes, but the students found that the calling often took longer, an average of 10 to 12 minutes, because a number of those with whom they spoke were interested in talking.

“We had some interesting conversations,” said senior Ethan Gibbons of Fowlerville, Michigan, a sociology major.  “Some wanted to know more or to ask questions, and others had strong opinions that they wanted to share.”

That in-the-moment interaction was also important, Nemeth said.

“A good survey doesn’t just ask attitudes and perceptions,” he said.  “I hope that we helped those we called to be better equipped when they vote on Tuesday.”

The students will work with the information the rest of this semester, going beyond the aggregate numbers to see whether or not responses differed based on factors such as location, age, gender, education, and whether or not the respondent was a hunter or earned income through farming.  “We’re going to do a lot of detailed analysis of these data, and that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Nemeth said.

Later, Nemeth anticipates sharing the results during professional sociological meetings as well as conferences focused on issues related to wolf management.  He has already made such presentations based on his previous work, including a 2012 study of 1,050 residents of the Upper Peninsula.