Montreal, June 15, 2005 • No 155




Heidi Lange is currently a junior at Hillsdale College (Michigan), majoring in Economics and minoring in Biology.





by Heidi Lange


          The free market friendly economist is rarely seen as the friend of the nature conservationist, and the arguments of the Austrian school of economics are typically not thought of as a means for the political environmentalist to achieve his goals. However, Austrian economics has something useful to teach us about conservation. It is my belief that the only way to achieve concrete results in the field of environmental conservation is to use methods completely different from those so far embraced by the conservationist. Rather than complain about how man's inherent selfishness leads him to disregard the welfare of other species, why not use that selfishness to achieve conservationist goals? Austrian economics will tell us that if we wish to see certain endangered species return to a non-endangered state, then the best way to do that is to allow private ownership of those species.


          There are several reasons which may be cited as explanation for the lackluster success of the conservation movement to date. The first and perhaps most often noted is the problem that despite the fact that "the number of nongovernment [sic] conservation organizations has soared in the past ten years… governments [still] own, or control access to, wild species in most countries" (Edwards 1995). The fact that most conservation efforts are government-funded means they must answer to public opinion for their apparent success or lack thereof. Therefore, when a group of scientists are debating the future of a certain natural resource, the most important arguments they will make are not arguments of a valid, scientific nature; to quote Rolf Peterson, who has spent decades researching the wolves and moose at Isle Royale National Park (IRNP), "the most influential arguments regarding the future of any national park will be spiritual, or inspirational" (Peterson 1995, p. 182), rather than scientific.

          However, it is perfectly logical that government action in this private sector would be inefficient. When the government takes on a project which would otherwise be left to the market, the loss of market interaction in that context means the loss of price signals, and therefore the loss of any exterior feedback as to the success or failure of the project in question. Without punishment for inefficiency (loss) or reward for efficiency (profit), it is literally impossible for the owner of the resource (in this case the government) to determine how that resource should be utilized; even if "utilization" of the resource in question is simply leaving, say, a certain animal totally free of human contact. Even this kind of "exploitation" of a resource is a certain level of utilization. In this case that level is zero, but it must nonetheless be determined by something, which is impossible to do without some kind of market signal. "Without the signals and the incentives of the market mechanism, it is difficult to discover low-cost means of resource conservation. There is also less incentive for decision makers to use low-cost methods, even when they are known" (Gwartney and Stroup 2003, p. 788). Indeed, the argument against government involvement in conservation is similar to the argument which Ludwig von Mises made in the 1930's against government ownership of society's productive resources; as he put it,

"The exchange ratios between money and the various goods and services as established on the market of the past and as expected to be established on the market of the future are the mental tools of economic planning. Where there are no money prices, there are no such things as economic quantities. There are only various quantitative relations between various causes and effects in the external world. There is no means for man to find out what kind of action would best serve his endeavors to remove uneasiness as far as possible" (Mises 1963 p. 209).

          It is simply not possible to determine how to allocate any resource without feedback from the price system.

          We can see that in essence, the conservation question is one of government ownership of a productive resource. The resource in question is the national park system; the economic good which this resource produces is "conservation;" the preservation of wilderness, and the according tourism and such industries as nature photography and literature, are the products being offered to the market. Except that under the current system they are not being offered on the market; they are monopolized and managed inefficiently, with decisions regarding the future of the resources being based on fluctuating public opinion and rent-seeking politicians. Without the price system as a basis for management of the resource, the most efficient management techniques are simply not discoverable.

          An important point to understand is that, under all circumstances, the amount of conservation which "society as a whole" invests in is determined by public opinion. It is never determined by what is objectively "best for the environment," since it is not possible to determine such a thing. Some conservationists argue that the ideal way to practice nature conservation is to take a "hands-off" approach and leave all natural processes to themselves, completely absent of human intervention, including the National Park Service (NPS); "in recent decades, the Service has moved strongly toward nonintervention as a primary strategy, especially in large parks free of crushing outside influences" (Peterson 1995, p. 167). However, there are two problems with this approach. The first is that, taken to its logical conclusion, this implies that what is "best for the environment" is simply for humans to die out and leave nature to itself. The other is that, even at a park such as IRNP where for over forty years the ecosystem has been merely observed by humans without intervention, situations arise which create debates about the appropriateness of human intervention. In the case of IRNP, the decline in the wolf population over the early 1990's led observing scientists to wonder if it would be appropriate to introduce other wolves to the island to help maintain the balance between wolf and moose population, and all the ecological implications thereof(1). The question became, very simply: is the goal of the NPS to (1) maintain a specific ecological balance, or (2) to leave nature absolutely to itself without human intervention?

"[Rolf O.] Peterson points out that the question of if and when to intervene in the face of a wolf decline or extirpation at Isle Royale National Park is not an issue of biology, but one that also involves an interpretation of the management goals of the park. Although wolves arrived in the park by natural means, apparently traveling over the ice from the Canadian shore, similar opportunities are minimal today because higher lake temperatures inhibit ice formation, and development along the Canadian shoreline would disrupt future migration. Thus, replacement of wolves in the park would have to be carried out by park managers. Isle Royale is a park with a long history of nonintervention in terms of resource management (to the extent that it is closed in winter), and Peterson is uncertain whether society would favor a purposeful wolf introduction" (Wright 1999, p. 33).

          The point, then, is that to simply claim "let nature take her course" as a criterion for activity is not an adequate goal for conservation activity. What actually determines conservation activity is public opinion, demonstrated either through the (debatably inefficient and inaccurate) system of voting, or through the decentralized market system; people express their preferences through the price system, by buying or refusing to buy a certain good. Even in the case of a good such as steel, the amount provided in the market is based on "public opinion" expressed through the market system, in the sense that actors(2) in the market buy how much of a good they deem optimal, no more, no less.

          If the government owns the park systems then public opinion determines how conservation works through the voting and political system, by voting in politicians who will (theoretically) enact the conservation laws which the voters desire. If the park system is in private hands, then public opinion determines how conservation occurs by "voting with the dollar," or simply by spending their money on the conservation activities which they prefer. Under the market system, it would be simpler to discover consumers' preferences since each consumer can voice his opinion (through spending his money, or refraining from spending his money), whereas under the voting system, only the majority of consumers (at least, those consumers who take the time to also become voters) who agree on one single solution are able to have an effect on the real situation. In the market, each consumer's preferences can be met, from the lowest income level to the highest, thanks to the ease of providing very specific goods in each market.

          Personally I would love to see the North American gray wolf (Canis lupus) survive the next few centuries of biological evolution. I believe that the wolf offers something that will be important to humanity for years to come: it is of ecological significance and plays an important part in the ecosystem of many areas, as well as having a certain cultural and romantic significance for humanity. Not only is the wolf interesting to me personally, but he "has functioned as a particularly powerful barometer of changing and conflicting attitudes toward wildlife" (Kellert et al. 1996, p. 978). The reactions and attitudes of humanity towards the wolf are worthy of study, if one is interested in understanding man's cultural view of his environment.

          Or, to put it another way, I have a subjective personal preference in favor of the survival of the gray wolf. I also happen to think that this species offers a very good example for my paper, since there is such a heated debate about the wolf. Is he a vicious predator who preys on the livelihood of farmers? Or is he a powerful symbol of freedom and independence whom we as humans ought to respect? How can we determine what the balance of human interaction with the wolf ought to be?

A Delicate Balance – a Symbiosis

          The relationship between humans and any other species is always a delicate balance. In some cases man has befriended an animal and his friendship has ensured that the species in question will not suffer extinction in the near future. Good examples of this are the domesticated dog (Canis familiaris) or cat (Felis domesticus) – no one questions the future of the Golden Retriever or the Siamese cat. In other cases man has discovered a practical use for the species in question, as in the case of the cow (Bos taurus) or horse (Equus caballus) or chicken (Gallus domesticus). However, mankind also has a rather long record of causing the complete annihilation of particular species, as in the case of the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratoria)(3). It is these latter behaviors which prompted traditional naturalism such as that of James Audubon to give way to modern radical environmentalism(4).

          Environmentalists of this ilk argue that humans are unjustly destroying wolves, especially Farley Mowat of Never Cry Wolf fame, and Barry Lopez, whose Of Wolves and Men was published in 1978. Lopez' book had a fairly strong impact on general public "feeling" about the wolf; he tackles humanity's emotional reactions to the animal, and does a fairly adept job of illustrating his point. He argues for a stronger appreciation of wolves and a greater respect for their existence;

"in the wolf we have not so much an animal that we have always known as one that we have consistently imagined. To the human imagination the wolf has proves at various times the appropriate symbol for greed or savagery, the exactly proper guise for the Devil, or fitting as a patron of warrior clans…I will suggest… some ways to organize the visions so that when a human being suddenly confronts a wolf there can be both a sense of the richness of ideas associated with the animal and a sense that an orderly mind has been at work" (Lopez 1978, p. 204. Emphasis in original).

          Mowat took a different approach to convincing the world that wolves were worthy of both study and respect; his book is, essentially, a journal of his (partly fanciful) experience living with a Canadian wolf pack, rather than the cultural and historical exploration that Lopez' is. His conclusions, however, are similar to Lopez': he believes that mankind has given wolf-kind the short end of the stick, as it were. In 1993 he writes that "we have doomed the wolf not for what it is but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be: the mythologized epitome of a savage, ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than the reflected image of ourself [sic]" (Mowat 1993, p. viii). Both Mowat and Lopez fail to realize that the only way to achieve any results in their fields is to appeal not to the emotions of men, but to their self-interest.

"The best way to ensure survival of the wolf species and maintain respect for human life is to cultivate a symbiotic relationship between the two, by allowing humans to profit from the existence of wolves, not merely from their deaths."

          This type of research and/or writing places too much importance on a vague idea of some sort of "natural balance," without discussing either a way for humanity to discover that "balance" or a reason for us to do so. Granted, there must be some way to discover the balance toward which natural systems tend – but the government is not the entity to do the job. The best way to ensure survival of the wolf species and maintain respect for human life is to cultivate a symbiotic relationship between the two, by allowing humans to profit from the existence of wolves, not merely from their deaths.

The Wolves in Yellowstone and Isle Royale National Parks

          The case of the gray wolf in North America offers a fine example of an instance where the line between wildlife conservation and human survival is a very hard one to draw. Conservationists wishing to preserve the wolf in its natural habitat are vehemently at odds with many farmers who perceive the wolf's existence in the wild as a threat to their livelihoods. In particular, there have been very heated debates about the appropriateness of wolf conservation in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) (where the wolf was reintroduced in 1995 and 1996 after being exterminated by park rangers in the 1920s [Huff et al 1999, Coughenour 1996.]) and IRNP (where the wolves migrated in the late 1940s, and have recently begun to die out [Petersen 1999]).

          The history of the gray wolf in North America is that of an ongoing war between man and beast. Beginning with the European colonization of America, wolves were hunted and killed on a regular basis, for the protection of human settlements or livestock. As early as the 1600s governments (usually small town councils) paid bounties for wolf carcasses on the East Coast; according to Barry Lopez's 1978 book Of Wolves and Men,

"The first wolf bounty law in America was passed in Massachusetts on November 9, 1630… Wolf bounties had been a means of effecting wolf control for thousands of years and were current in Europe and the British Isles at the time of immigration [to America]. A system both biologically ineffective and open to fraud, it was nevertheless popular because raising the bounty payment in exchange for a dead wolf was tangible, daily evidence that something was being done" (Lopez 1978, p. 171).

          In the late 1800s the national parks were formed for the purpose, among other things, of protecting large ungulates(5). "Yellowstone National Park was the world's first national park... [and was] established in 1872" (Huff et al 1999, p. 17). Park managers at YNP were concerned with enlarging the size of elk herds, and "from ~1875 to 1930… predatory animals (e.g. wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and bears) were sporadically controlled and in some cases completely eliminated" (Huff et al 1999, p. 18). Fifty years of dedicated hunting took its toll, and by the 1930s wolves were completely eliminated from YNP and the park managers had an overpopulation of elk on their hands (Coughenour 1996, p. 574). Indeed, the first set of scientific surveys made in the context of natural resource preservation was prompted by

"concerns about overpopulations… the surveys suggested that the capacity of the winter range in many parks to support large ungulate species was decreasing. They also advocated an end to predator control in parks. At the time, major ungulate predators such as the wolf (Canis lupus) and cougar (Felis concolor) had been reduced to virtual extinction in many parks, and thus no longer played an important role in controlling ungulate populations" (Wright 1999, p. 31).

          At this point, the tables began to turn; rather than bending all efforts on exterminating the gray wolf as a predator, conservationists began to see a need for such predators in controlling the population of ungulates, and in maintaining the delicate balance of the ecosystem of national parks such as YNP.

          The NPS, under a great deal of pressure from public opinion (primarily through lobby groups), finally determined that an appropriate solution to the overpopulation of elk (Cervus alaphus) and imbalance of the ecosystem in the park would be to reintroduce the wolf to YNP, and in 1995 and 1996 they accomplished this. The reintroduction of the wolf to YNP was controversial and was met with complaints from many farmers whose livestock grazed on lands surrounding the area the wolves were reintroduced to. Public opinion continued (and continues) to be divided: "Whereas many have come to view wolves as an innocent victim of a society that has lost its bearings and place in nature, others still retain hostile attitudes toward wolves and large predators" (Kellert et al. 1996, p. 979). In contrast, the IRNP wolves have so far been left to their own devices, although closely observed by NPS researchers.

          What makes IRNP unique is that although it was made a national park in 1931, the NPS never attempted to manage either ungulate population (in this case, moose herds) or predator populations. As L. David Mech explains it:

"Wolves found their way some 15-20 miles across the Lake Superior ice from Ontario to Isle Royale National Park. In 1949 that 210-square-mile gem of an island was ideal for wolves. It supported a moose herd that for half a century had never felt the fang of a wolf. The right combination of wandering mainland wolves and a solid ice bridge apparently only happened once.

"The Isle Royale wolves flourished, and so did the moose. And so did scientists who followed both populations. The island was an ideal natural laboratory in which to count the wolves and the moose and to study their interactions over time" (Mech 1995, p. 11).

          Perhaps largely because of its remote location, IRNP was never a target for NPS micromanagement, and since the late 1950s it therefore has served as an ideal place for ecologists to study the relationship between gray wolves and a single prey. However, in the late 1990s the gray wolf population was in steep decline and a major question was that of whether or not it should be supplemented by the introduction of gray wolves from other areas. Again, this is an example of how even if the goal of resource management is what is "best for the ecosystem" in question, it is by no means simple to determine what is "best" for any ecosystem (which includes humans – and every ecosystem in the world does) when there is no profit-and-loss system to signal managers as to what public opinion prefers.

          It's important to clarify that, in this paper, the "ecosystem" includes human beings. To say what is "best for the ecosystem" means what is best for humanity in relation to the natural world. Despite the NPS' hands-off approach and their lack of "overt management emphasis other than assuring that populations are free of unwarranted unnatural disturbances" (Wright 1999, p. 32), it is important to remember that humanity is, as always has been, part of the ecosystem. Humans are mammals who must live in some kind of combination with other animals. "It is widely recognized… in the scientific community that contemporary biotic ecosystem components managed under the agency's natural process management policy evolved over thousands of years with sympatric humans. They now continue to evolve with modern humans" (Huff et al 1999, p. 23). This means that when we consider the optimal situation for a certain ecosystem, such as a natural park, and that ecosystem includes humans (which most do, in this era), then we must consider what is best for mankind as well as what is best for the other inhabitants of that ecosystem.

          Rolf O. Petersen, who has worked with the Isle Royale wolves and moose for decades, puts it nicely: "Allowing nature free rein in national parks is not as easy as one might suppose, even when the effort is backed by good science and determination" (Peterson 1995, p. 179). In the case of the national park system, many valuable resources are present; land and wild ecosystems, competent scientists, and very strong public interest. The reason that the parks are often managed inefficiently is that there are no market prices to guide the managers.

          In addition to the problem of lack of price signals, conservation efforts to date have been hampered by conflict in public opinion. Scientists and managers working with the wolves must pay close attention to public sentiment, since the National Park Service is a federal government-funded and -run organization. From the earliest park managers' rampant wolf-killing spree (in the late 1800s/early 1900s) to the reintroduction of the wolf with apparent disregard for the opinions of local landowners and farmers, to the indecisive policy followed by the NPS, government management of Canis lupus has been anything but stable or consistent. At the end of the eighteenth century, government bounties offered for wolf carcasses encouraged slaughter of the animals. From the earliest days of European civilization in North America, there was a relentless war waged against the wolf; it was

"directed against an animal… not for the value of its hair, skin or meat, but because that animal preyed upon other animals that humans desired for their own consumption. Along the way, the wolf became the object of a passionate, often irrational, sometimes brutal hatred that humans ordinarily reserve for members of their own kind. Hundreds of thousands of wolves were trapped, poisoned, shot, or dynamited in their dens, while some suffered deaths that had every visage of revenge. Caught alive and soaked with kerosene, wolves were set ablaze; others were scalped, had their mouths wired shut, or had their eyes pierced with branding irons before being released to starve to death. Still others were bound with ropes on their upper and lower jaws, tied to horses, and ripped apart.

"Although wolf hatred did not originate in North America, it was here that it reached its zenith early in the twentieth century. By then, world populations of the wolf, which along with humans were once the most widely distributed land mammal on earth, had drastically declined due to human encroachment and persecution. Now federal governments themselves took up the chase. What followed was a determined, subsidized, and well-organized crusade to wipe out the final remnants of the species from a vast portion of the planet."(6)

          Even after the federal government turned to a more conservationist approach of dealing with nature, in the late 1800's with the introduction of the NPS, government workers were still opponents of the wolf. The original object of the NPS was to preserve land areas with large populations of ungulates; free ranging wolf packs are hardly conducive to the preservation of herds of elk or moose. "The goal of early park management was… to protect species considered to be desirable, primarily large ungulates, and to eliminate undesirable species or processes which threatened the desired species."(7) Then, thanks to public pressure, the NPS decided to reinstate the wolf in Yellowstone(8), after that early hunting. The point is that government policy on conservation issues sways back and forth with public opinion; there is only a semblance of scientific coherence to the actions of the NPS. It is apparent that if conservation efforts are to succeed, conservationists must find a way to achieve their goals without having to become political lobbyists.



1. Peterson 1995, p. 181.
2. In an economic sense, an actor is a person who interacts under market conditions.
3. The last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1913. The species had been hunted to endangered status, as it was a sought-after delicacy.
4. It must be emphasized that the environmental movement is extremely decentralized, and it is therefore somewhat inaccurate to claim that any particular position is held by the "average" conservationist or even the "mainstream" environmentalist. In the question of the wolf, however, Barry Lopez and Farley Mowat have been the main researchers who argued for "pro-wolf" activities at the expense of humans.
5. An ungulate is a large hoofed mammal such as a moose (Alce alces), elk (Cervus alaphus), or deer (Odocoilus virginianus).
6. Hampton 1997, p. 6.
7. Wright 1999, p. 30.
8. McNamee 1997.



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•  Wright, R. Gerald. (1999) "Wildlife Management in the National Parks: Questions in Search of Answers" in Ecological Applications, Vol. 9, No. 1.