Behavioral theories and the cost of destruction

Home|Outdoors Feature|Behavioral theories and the cost of destruction

It is not an uncommon scene or a unique one for lands owned and managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. You see it in state parks, along highways, on Bureau of Land Management lands and even in the most scenic portions of Wyoming’s mountains and national forests. Its lasting effects are created by just a few people but witnessed by thousands who visit Wyoming’s public lands to enjoy recreating on these lands that are managed by a variety of state and federal agencies — the destruction, vandalism and general mistreatment of public use areas and signage.

Whether through dumping trash, diapers, bottles and cans, remnant bonfires or shooting informational signs, these actions may be the most destructive force on public lands next to human-caused wildfires. To better understand the impact of a single sign with bullet holes or a couple of cans tossed aside haphazardly at your local trailhead, we can look to what is referred to as the “Broken Windows Theory.”

According to, the theory is an “…academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighborhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime.” The theory states that serious crimes are a result of a longer history of smaller crimes or misdemeanors that over time allow offenders to transition from the simple breaking of a window to shoplifting, robbery and so on.

This theory, applied to the mistreatment of public use areas, is not an exact trail from littering to robbery, but more the subconscious behavior of individuals in a society to justify their actions through the actions of others. Hence, if a visitor sees litter in an area, then he or she might think it is acceptable to add more litter. If one sign has been shot full of bullet holes, then other signs in the area or within similar settings may be justifiable targets as well. Possibly the most common example is that of illegal off-road vehicle travel, where tracks get established that others then follow.

The sad truth is that only a few individuals are typically responsible for the majority of mistreatment and damage of public areas. Their actions can be attributed to a lack of knowledge, understanding and general awareness of how their destructive actions can be compounded through the copycat actions of others.

The good news is there is an extremely easy and inexpensive cure to these mistreatments. If we all simply return home with all of the food, drink, packaging, clothing, gear and other items with which we arrived at our favorite recreation area, none of it would become litter.

Cleaning up trash and repairing damage adds cost and time for agency personnel that could otherwise be utilized to improve these areas and possibly even justify acquiring more areas for public and wildlife use. If individuals looking for a good place to enjoy recreational shooting simply choose to refrain from the destructive and costly act of shooting signs, buildings, trees and trash and decide instead to practice their firearm skills and marksmanship at a local shooting range or safe public land area, these issues would be eliminated with little effort.

Because WGFD is funded through hunting and fishing license sales, along with a federal excise tax on hunting and fishing-related items, we like to break down costs associated with managing our public access areas, wildlife habitat management areas, walk in-access yes areas and hunter management areas in these terms:

• A shot-up parking lot information sign at Bud Love WHMA = 4 resident elk tags

• A trip to Tongue River Canyon PAA to pick up trash = 2 resident deer tags

• Vandalism to boat docks at Monument Point PAA = 2 resident annual fishing licenses

• Noxious weed treatment due to off-road travel on Kerns WHMA = 8 resident bighorn sheep tags

The solution to maintaining and increasing public access and quality wildlife habitat is to become aware, educated and involved in making wise, responsible choices that lead to the benefit and enjoyment of all outdoor users. Become the change you want to see and you will see how contagious it can be. By personally demonstrating proper outdoor ethics, it will spread to other users. When someone sees you pick up a piece of litter, they will likely acknowledge your efforts and be inspired to partake in similar actions that aid in protection of these beautiful and valuable areas that we are blessed to enjoy.

If you witness an incident on public lands, please note as much information as possible, including a vehicle description and license plate if possible, and contact the managing agency (WGFD, USFS, BLM, etc.) as soon as possible.


Seth Roseberry is the WGFD Sheridan regional habitat and access coordinator.

By |June 15th, 2018|

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