Year of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - Campus Access Only

Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Name

Forest and Conservation Science

Department or School/College

College of Forestry and Conservation

Committee Chair

Wayne Freimund

Commitee Members

Elizabeth Covelli Metcalf, Norma Nickerson, Robert B. Powell, Douglas Dalenberg


University of Montana


As the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th year, Yellowstone National Park – the world’s first national park - is dealing with a variety of difficult and complex challenges. Human-wildlife conflict has become a flashpoint for these challenges, as increased visitation results in fewer managers dealing with more people in the park. A recent spate of deaths of day hikers in the park due to grizzly bears set further focus on this point. Yellowstone officials realized that effective communication strategies are more important than ever before.

This research was part of a broader project designed to examine the effectiveness of wildlife safety communications for visitors. The purpose of this research was to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of communications regarding bear safety and day hikers in Yellowstone using three theoretical frameworks. The theory of planned behavior helps reveal drivers of rational human behaviors. The elaboration likelihood model, including this research’s quantified conceptualization of elaboration, provides an understanding of how to influence the drivers of human behaviors identified by the theory of planned behavior. Lastly, wildlife value orientations help managers understand how to frame interpretive messages to increase the amount of thoughtful processing day hikers use when evaluating bear safety messages. Intercept survey questionnaires were conducted in the park with day hikers on site at two different trails in the summer of 2016. Overall, 777 day hiker groups were intercepted, in which 14 (1.8%) did not speak enough English to participate. From the remaining 763 groups, 647 individuals agreed to complete the survey for a response rate of 85%.

This research sought to merge together two major theories: the elaboration likelihood model and the theory of planned behavior. Using confirmatory factor analysis and structural equation modeling, it improved upon previous research attempting to develop an elaboration scale. Higher levels of elaboration were more predictive of multiple bear safety behavioral intentions. Additionally, elaboration was found to positively influence all the antecedents of bear spray behavioral intentions according to the theory of planned behavior. The effect of elaboration on bear spray behaviors was also partially mediated by the components of the theory of planned behavior. Lastly, visitors with different wildlife value orientations found different types of messages about bear safety more or less relevant. Messages that are identified as relevant by people are likely to increase their elaboration.

Future research should continue to develop and apply the elaboration scale in conjunction with the theory of planned behavior to a variety of contexts. Managers can use these results to understand how their communication strategies are affecting visitor behaviors, and thus improve their communications. Additionally, research should continue to explore how to create communications that visitors find relevant. The goal of this study is to provide insight about the relationship between communication and visitor behaviors in park and conservation area settings and create a transferable framework for a variety of contexts.

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