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To Protect and Conserve

Mises Daily: Monday, April 02, 2012 by

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Texas ranchers are doing more for animal conservation than animal-rights groups, because they allow animals to be hunted and killed on private ranches. Charly Seale, executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, makes this bold — and likely controversial — point on a recent CBS 60 Minutes report. Although this seems counterintuitive, a small dose of economic thinking will unravel this enigma.

Aristotle said, "What is common to many is least taken care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others." This is the famous "tragedy-of-the-commons" concept, which Garrett Hardin wrote about in 1968. He was discussing a pasture without clear property rights and overgrazing by cattle. As Hardin explained, "Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited.… Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."

Plainly stated, the tragedy is that no one has an incentive to take care of something that they do not own. For example, if you had to use a bathroom, and I gave you a choice of a bathroom at a public park, a bathroom at a private park (let's say Disneyland), or bathroom in an individual's home, which would you choose? I am willing to bet your last choice would be the public bathroom at the public park. Disneyland, on the other hand, wants people to enjoy the park experience (clean facilities contribute to that) and come back. If someone does not clean their bathroom, they suffer on a personal level. Thus, they have an incentive to clean their own bathroom. With common or public ownership, however, there is no personal benefit to cleaning or maintaining the bathroom facilities.

Chickens, cows, and pigs are examples of why private ownership is good for animal populations. The fact that we kill these animals every day might bother some people. Yet I have never heard of a chicken, cow, or pig facing extinction. The reason is simple: people breed them. Now, we can either assume people breed these animals because they enjoy watching animals breed (which is a completely different subject!), or we can acknowledge there's a financial incentive to breed.

Of course, this presupposes that people are allowed to own these animals in the first place. A beef rancher's job is to raise cows to put on your BBQ grill or smoker and eventually satisfy your appetite. The rancher has an incentive to kill his cows at a certain rate, and he has an incentive to introduce a bull to a cow or a rooster to a hen and let them "do their thing." This ensures beef or poultry is available to put on your plate.

Property rights — ownership — have also saved the elephant. Countries that allow community-ownership rights are more successful at increasing elephant populations than countries that ban poaching. Terry Anderson and Shawn Regan noted that, in contrast to Kenya, where hunting is illegal, Zimbabwe has implemented a program called the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE). With CAMPFIRE, which allows private management of the animals (including the right to hunt them), elephant populations have increased by 50 percent. In countries that ban hunting, such as Kenya, the elephant population has decreased between 60 and 70 percent.

So, how are Texas ranchers connected to African animals? According to the 60 Minutes report, Texas has more exotic animals than anywhere on earth. Approximately a quarter million endangered animals live in Texas, and 125 different species are represented. The Exotic Wildlife Association, located in Ingram, Texas, represents 5,000 exotic animal ranchers. These ranchers have found it in their financial self-interest to protect the exotic animals that live on their ranches. Ironically, allowing these animals to be hunted on private property has helped them to thrive. In fact, three varieties of antelope have been saved from the brink of extinction. The endangered-animal population in Texas is increasing, while it is falling in the animals' native Africa.

One hunter, Paul, told Lara Logan of 60 Minutes, "The money that I spend to hunt these animals keeps these animals alive on these ranches." Of course, this model is not fortunate for the animal that happens to get killed, but the species as a whole benefits by allowing this private-property system to work. Even an analysis by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that was shown on the 60 Minutes report admits that private ranches work: "Hunting … provides an economic incentive for … ranchers to continue to breed these species.… Hunting … reduces the threat of the species extinction."

Animal-rights groups, such as Friends of Animals and their president, Priscilla Feral, oppose hunting these endangered animals and believe these animals should not be living in Texas. Feral goes so far as to claim that it is immoral: "I don't think you create a life to shoot it," she stated. One of her complaints is that the private ranchers make the hunting too easy. Others contend, though, that this is not true. Hunters are not guaranteed a "trophy." And, even if hunting an animal on private ranches is fairly easy, so what? Like the pig farmer, the ranchers have an incentive to ensure animals are hunted at a certain rate. It would not be in their own self-interest to allow too much hunting in a very short period of time. In fact, no more than 10 percent of a herd is hunted each year.

During the 60 Minutes spot, Logan asked Seale if he considered himself a conservationist. He responded that it is the hunters who are the main conservationists. Logan, perhaps revealing her own beliefs or playing devil's advocate, pointed out that just because people are willing to pay large amounts of money to hunt does not make the practice morally right. This is where economic thinking and understanding private property rights comes into play and sheds bright light on this emotional topic.

Logan also interviewed 83-year-old Texan rancher David Bamberger, a man passionate to save the scimitar-horned oryx. He correctly stated, "I'm wise enough, smart enough to know if there's no incentive, if altruism is the only incentive, you're not going to get a great deal of participation."

My former professor Walter Williams was once featured on a John Stossel special. He talked about how beef arrives at the grocery store (a play on Leonard Read's famous essay "I, Pencil"): "If it all depended on human love and kindness, I doubt whether you'd have one cow in New York." He is right — lest you think that the clothes you wear, the electronic devices you use, or your morning cup of Starbucks are the result of someone else loving you. The people who produce these products love themselves — they want to make money. But tangled up with that self-love, they give the rest of us what we want. This principle of self-interest, guided by the invisible hand in an institutional framework of private property, is the best solution for endangered animals.

Consider the symbol of America, the bald eagle, which was once endangered. According to BaldEagleInfo.com,

On June 28, 2007, the Interior Department took the American bald eagle off the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. The bald eagle will still be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibits the take, transport, sale, barter, trade, import and export, and possession of eagles, making it illegal for anyone to collect eagles and eagle parts, nests, or eggs without a permit.

That is all well and good, but perhaps seeing grilled bald eagle on your local Outback menu would be better for the this emblem of our freedom. Individuals would have more of an incentive to protect and breed eagles if it were tied to making a profit.

I have seen bald eagles twice in my life — once in Lake Tahoe and again at Lake Shasta in California. Indeed, the eagle belongs to all of us; and, if I saw someone trying to shoot an eagle for "fun," I might say something to stop the bird from being shot. But I definitely would not die for that eagle! Now, let's assume owning and breeding eagles is legal and someone goes to Texas and tries to shoot Joe Rancher's eagles. You know what would happen? He would shoot back (we ain't in California anymore!). Is this passion for eagles based on the rancher's animal-loving instincts? Of course not. When you shoot at his eagles, you're shooting at his wallet.

Ownership gives you an incentive to take care of that possession, not only now, but also for the future. This is why each year I drive by a Christmas-tree farm off of Highway 101 near San Jose, and every year they have trees. If you want to make someone "act green," give them an incentive to make green (money)! The same principle applies to chickens, cows, and pigs — and also for three endangered antelope species. Dr. Pat Condy, one of the world's leading conservationists, admitted on 60 Minutes that the ranchers are helping. "It's the numbers that are the bottom line," he stated.

Well, the numbers are clear even if people such as Priscilla Feral want to ignore them. Texas ranchers are saving these animals even if saving them is not their primary motivation. In short, the government should just leave them alone.

Feral, however, believes it is both immoral and unnatural for these African animals to live in Texas. But an animal reserve in Africa is an artificial habitat as well. How is it immoral for animals to be humanely raised or hunted for the ultimate purpose of human consumption? Hunting on private ranches provides not only utility to the hunter and jobs for about 14,000 people in the local economy; it is saving the animals more effectively than any government regulation ever could.

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Unfortunately, Feral was successful in court and a new rule issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service will make it a crime to hunt three types of antelope without a federal permit. This permit will, of course, be a high barrier to entry. Not surprisingly, the new law has already led to a decline in the value of these animals by more than 50 percent according to Seale. Now that the financial incentive to take care of these animals is gone, their numbers will drop again.

While I'm sure Feral has good intentions and cares about these animals, her ignorance of the economics will lead to the disappearance of the very animals she claims to protect. Dr. Condy summed it up well when he responded to Logan's question, "So who is winning the day here?"

"One thing is for sure: they [the animals] are losing."