Rural Myths and Conspiracy Theories Die Hard

Rural Myths and Conspiracy Theories Die Hard

The only thing tougher to spot, stalk, and slay than the sources of outdoor folktales and conspiracy theories are the myths themselves, which seem to strengthen with each season.

That’s especially true of deep-seated conspiratorial yarns that claim insurance companies lobby lawmakers and pressure wildlife agencies to slash deer herds across whitetail country. Biologists simply strive to balance herds with the habitat or social tolerance, but some hunters see darker motives. They embrace insurance-payoff conspiracies with the tenacity of those who see muzzle smoke atop Dealey Plaza’s grassy knoll on Nov. 22, 1963, photos—even though smokeless powder was long standard when President John F. Kennedy died there.

That folktale defies all logic. Insurers seldom lose money on risks they can analyze and predict, and few risks generate more data for assessment than deer-vehicle collisions. Insurance analysts can break down deer-vehicle accidents by state, county, township, driver’s age, driver’s sex, injury rates, repair costs, time of day, the day of week and month, and vehicle susceptibility.

Armed with all that data, actuaries ensure insurance companies cover their risks. At risk of simplifying, those living in areas with high rates of deer-vehicle collisions pay higher insurance rates than those in areas with few deer. And if you’re accident-prone and cost insurers money by hitting too many deer in a given time, they dump you as a client.

Mum Officials?
Insurers don’t pester wildlife agencies to solve the problem. Maybe wildlife agency chieftains are all in cahoots, but you’ll never find one that says they’ve been pressured by insurers to reduce deer herds. They do, however, field—and dismiss—random calls or emails from drivers seeking compensation after a “government-owned deer” wrecks their car.

That includes current and former wildlife bureau directors such as Kentucky’s Jon Gassett, Virginia’s Matt Knox, and Ohio’s Mike Tonkovich. None recall hearing from even one insurer during their long careers.

Likewise, Cathy Stepp, former secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said she’s never had anyone from the insurance industry discuss deer-vehicle accidents with her. That includes her time as a state senator and as a member of the state’s natural resources board.

“Some people have this vision that the insurance sector has a much bigger role in day-to-day policy than they do in reality,” Stepp said.

Even so, many folks keep claiming a conspiracy rather than conceding their only evidence is previous conspiracy theories. That, too, is the nature of rumors and folklore. People believe it because they heard it from trusted friends. And then they spend time and energy reading or viewing material that “proves” the conspiracy. The more time they invest in affirming such suspicions, the more fervently they’ll defend it.

As Joe Pierre wrote in the April 2019 issue of Psychology Today, strengthening a belief is easier and more convenient than ever, thanks to the Internet. “Expertise is now devalued, and knowledge has been democratized. … All of us are susceptible to ‘confirmation bias’—the tendency to reinforce pre-existing beliefs when we look for information. With the amount of information available online tailored to our interests and preferences, we’re now in an era of ‘confirmation bias on steroids.’”

Who’s a True Believer?
Further, not all “true believers” wear tinfoil hats and receive coded messages through microchips in crowned molars. The phenomenon also didn’t start with the Internet, dark websites, and Google. In 1992, for example, entire deer herds across Wisconsin’s farm country were supposedly eating mold-tainted corn and then stumbling back into the woods to die.

The rumors sounded so believable that Lyle Nauman, a respected professor of wildlife biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, talked publicly about die-offs reported by his students. Soon after, he regretted speaking. Try as he might, Nauman couldn’t track down any farmers with poisoned deer or corpses in their woods. Nauman quickly arranged another round of media interviews to help squelch the rumors.

Likewise, the state chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in the winter of 1995-96 helped spread the rumor that wild turkeys in north-central counties were freezing to death on their roosts after a nasty January ice storm. As if on cue, a co-worker came over to my desk at Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine an hour later to report a hot tip: A farmer “just outside town” found at least 30 wild turkeys frozen solid in roost trees and the ground below.

I was skeptical, but asked for the farmer’s name and address so I could interview him and take photos. My co-worker soon returned to sheepishly say: “He doesn’t want any media or DNR types snooping around, but I think he’s just bullshitting. He sounds nervous and defensive.”

Those incidents highlight a trait of folktales and conspiracies: They include a factual sliver that gives them credibility. As Mark Twain wrote, “Get your facts first, and then distort them as much as you want.”

The turkey tale sounded plausible because a freak ice storm had recently struck, and sparkling ice coated the region’s trees and fields. Plus, wild turkeys were relatively new to the region at the time, and some considered them vulnerable to the North’s brutal winters. Only in the new century when flocks took hold all the way to Lake Superior did turkeys establish a hardy reputation in Great Lakes states.

Toxic Tales
Likewise, the corn-mold conspiracy made sense. So-called “deer corn” is a low-grade shell-corn that inspectors rejected for human consumption and livestock feed. Instead, it’s often sold for feeding or baiting deer, birds, and other wildlife.

A common cause for rejecting corn is aflatoxin fungi, Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, which grow on fodder, feed pellets and cereal grains. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration forbids feeds testing over 20 parts per billion of aflatoxins to be fed to dairy cattle or in grain products used for human consumption.

Grains exceeding those toxicity levels can be sold as wildlife feeds. How toxic do they get? When Texas A&M researchers tested 100 samples in a 1998 study, they found 44% contained aflatoxins exceeding 20 parts per billion, and 20% were at 100 parts per billion and higher.

Further, corn and grains used for wildlife feeding are seldom fresh. They often sit in storage for weeks and months before being sold. The longer they sit, the more they fester. The whitetail’s digestive systems can handle aflatoxin molds that would sicken other ruminants, but little research has been done to determine its lethality on birds and other wildlife.

‘Restocking’ Wolves
Another persistent myth in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula gained traction after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started translocating gray wolves in 1995 to restore the Northern Rockies’ wolf population. Meanwhile, during the late 1970s and 1980s, wolves were trickling back into northwestern Wisconsin from northeastern Minnesota, where wolves never lost their toehold. Great Lakes wolves gained federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, and Wisconsin listed them as endangered in 1975. With those protections in place, wolves rebuilt their own numbers in Wisconsin.

Even so, by the late the 1990s it was “common knowledge” that the feds and the Wisconsin DNR conspired to restock wolves. The conspiracy spread to include the Michigan DNR as wolves re-established their numbers in the Upper Peninsula. No matter how hard agency staff try to “educate the public” about the wolf’s natural recolonization, “truck and dump” rumors became fact among many hunters, and go something like this:

“My Uncle Sven’s buddy saw the DNR release three of them from box traps west of Rhinelander one night, so don’t tell me they got here on their own. I know it’s true. My uncle said so himself.”

Ingrained Distrust
Such distrust of government agencies is another common trait of conspiracy theorists. Political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent at the University of Miami collaborated on a 2014 book, “American Conspiracy Theories,” which reports 33% of Americans believe President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and nearly equal numbers believe the Bush Administration masterminded the 9-11 attacks.

Uscinski and Parent found that people on the political left and right believe in conspiracies at roughly the same rates, and sometimes in mirror images. For example, liberals tend to consider media sources and political parties the pawns of rich capitalists, and conservatives tend to think academicians and liberal elites control the media and political institutions.

Conspiracy theories also accurately predict political traits. If you think corporations push GMO research (genetically modified organisms) in hopes of destroying small farmers, you’re probably a lefty. And if you think climate change is a hoax hatched by university scientists who manipulate atmospheric data in hopes of destroying the American economy, you’re probably a righty.

Professor Jim Tantillo teaches environmental history, environmental ethics, and the philosophy and morality of hunting at Cornell University in New York. He said wives’ tales and fairytales have long explained the unexplainable and assured people they could safely disregard uncomfortable truths.

“We live in a secular age that wants logical explanations,” he said. “Societies with long-held religious beliefs tended to just cite the book of Job and move on when bad things happened. Today our societies are more apt to blame government or our institutions, and even the church. People’s search for explanations can lead to bizarre beliefs.”

Speaking of straining plausibility, did you know wild turkeys suppress ruffed grouse when expanding their range and growing their flocks? And did you know the Wisconsin DNR secretly acknowledged “the turkey problem,” and sought to suppress their numbers by seeding entire regions with rattlesnakes?

Well, some folks believe it to this day. The folktale began about 20 years ago after the U.S. F&WS—not the DNR—released 15 captive-raised massasauga rattlesnakes at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of saving the native species from extinction.

This “head-start” program raised massasaugas to sizes that made them less vulnerable to predators. Massasaugas can grow to 2 or 3 feet at maturity, but they’re often killed long before by hogs, skunks, foxes, hawks, eagles, raccoons — and wild turkeys.

Despite the hard, biological fact that massasaugas have more reason to fear wild turkeys than the other way around, the conspiracy theorists know the truth: The government is trying to minimize its turkey-restoration mistake by releasing serpents onto the landscape.

Unfortunately, most scientists and other educators realize that attempts to set the record straight will fail to shatter such myths. After all, beliefs endure more tenaciously than facts once they take root.

Feature image via Tony Bynum.

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