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December 31, 1995
Since 1970, conservationists have painted a dismal picture of an increasing struggle for survival of wildlife, with one species after another being pushed to the brink of extinction. There is no doubt that many animal species that have disappeared or have been drastically reduced were at one time found in truly enormous numbers.
The passenger pigeon, which was native to North America, was once probably the most numerous species of bird on earth. At its peak, its population may have numbered around 3 billion. Its migrating flocks darkened the skies over towns and cities and sounded like an approaching tornado, yet they were extinct by 1914, mainly because of massive market-hunting. A similar fate befell the great auk, a large, flightless seabird that nested in vast numbers on islands in the North Atlantic. It was exterminated by whalers and fishermen who slaughtered it for food, eggs, feathers, and oil.
Why are some species disappearing and others thriving? First, we can examine what is disappearing and what is not. Why was the American buffalo nearly exterminated but not the Hereford, the Angus, or the Jersey cow? Why do cattle and sheep ranchers over-graze the public lands but maintain lush pastures on their own property? Why are rare birds and mammals taken from the wild in a manner that often harms them and depletes the population, but carefully raised and nurtured in aviaries, game ranches, and hunting preserves?
In all of these cases, it is clear that the problem of overexploitation or overharvesting is a result of the resources being under public rather than private ownership. The difference in their management is a direct result of two totally different forms of property rights and ownership: public, communal, or open-access common property vs. private property. Wherever we have public ownership we find overuse, waste, and extinction; but private ownership results in sustained-yield use and preservation.
It is important to recognize that this distinction between the destructive overuse of open-access commons [common property hereafter] and careful sustained-yield use of private property resources does not merely apply to a comparison of wild with domesticated populations of plants and animals. Common property problems involving wildlife have been especially prevalent in America, and they continue to be extremely vexing precisely because of American wildlife law.
In Europe, native wildlife often belongs to private landowners or is managed under a combination of private and public property. Some European countries have fewer problems of overexploitation of wildlife, regardless of population pressures and economic and political systems. In other words, we find precisely what economic analysis has predicted about the treatment of common property and private property wildlife resources.
An especially illustrative example of private property rights in wildlife appears in the Montagnais Indians of Quebec and Labrador. The Montagnais dwelled in the forests of the Labrador Peninsula, hunting such furbearing animals as caribou, deer, and beaver. They treated wildlife as a common property resource, with everyone sharing in the bounty of the hunt. Because game was plentiful and the Indian population was relatively low, the common property resource system was able to work.
However, with the arrival of the French fur traders in the 1600s, the demand for beaver began to rise rapidly. As the value of the furs rose, there was a corresponding increase in beaver exploitation. But unlike the buffalo, virtually condemned to extinction as an unowned resource, the beaver were protected by the evolution of private property rights among the hunters. By the early to mid 18th century, the transition to private hunting grounds was almost complete and the Montagnais were managing the beaver on a sustained-yield basis.
It was a highly sophisticated system. The Montagnais blazed trees with their family crests to delineate their hunting grounds, practiced retaliation against poachers and trespassers, developed a seasonal allotment system, and marked beaver houses. Animal resources were husbanded. Each year the family hunted in a different quarter in rotation, leaving a tract in the center as a sort of bank, not to be hunted over unless forced to do so by a shortage in the regular tract.
This remarkably advanced system lasted for over a century and certainly served to prevent the extinction of the beaver. Unfortunately, more whites entered the region and began to treat the beaver as a common resource, trapping beavers themselves rather than trading with the Indians, and the beaver began to disappear. Finally, the Indians were forced to abandon their private property system and joined the whites in a rapid overexploitation of the beaver.
Another example of how private ownership can successfully preserve wildlife is found on game ranches, hunting preserves, safari parks, and animal and bird farms. Many of these private ventures, especially the game ranches, were established to generate profits from private hunting. Consequently, there has been a tremendous outcry from environmentalists and conservationists because the animals are raised for profit and some of them are killed. Yet, if emotional responses can be put aside, it seems clear that these game ranches produce many positive results. Many of the animals they stock are rapidly disappearing in their native countries because of pressures resulting from a rapidly expanding human population. Indeed, some of the more spectacular and most sought-after big-game mammals may now have healthier and more stable populations on game ranches than in their native countries.
If the profits gained by giving hunters access to exotic game can provide the economic incentive for landowners to manage the animals on a sustained-yield basis, some species will be saved. The same holds for the profits to be derived from visitors to game parks and preserves. In fact, the protection provided at some of the parks, preserves, and gardens has actually produced a glut of some animals. There have been well-publicized efforts by some preserves to return their surplus animals to Africa. Lions from America have even been taken to Africa to appear in movies that were filmed there.
Perhaps we should judge all of these activities by their achievements rather than by their motives, for it may turn out that in the future the developing countries will be restocked with their native fauna from specimens now thriving on game ranches and preserves.
Such a success story has been the preservation of the Hawaiian goose, or nene. Once they numbered over 25,000 in the wild, but under common property management the population had plummeted to 20 to 30 birds by 1949. Fortunately, they had been bred by aviculturists as early as 1824. A Hawaiian rancher had many on his farm, and there was a flock at the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, England. Through the combined efforts of many interested parties, an intensive captive breeding program was begun in the United States and Europe, and thousands of young nenes were produced. Beginning in the 1960s, they were reintroduced to the wild in Hawaii, and by the mid 1970s there were as many as 600 in their native habitat.
The problems of environmental degradation, overexploitation of natural resources, and depletion of wildlife all derive from their existence as common property resources. Wherever we find an approach to the extension of private property rights in these areas, we find superior results. Wherever we have exclusive private ownership, whether it is organized around a profit-seeking or nonprofit undertaking, there are incentives for the private owners to preserve the resource. Self-interest drives private property owners to careful management and protection of their resource.
Asking people to revere resources and wildlife won’t bring about the peaceable kingdom when the only way a person can survive is to use up the resource before someone else does. Adopting a property system that directs and channels man’s innate self-interest into behavior that preserves natural resources and wildlife will cause people to act as if they were motivated by a new conservationist ethic. If we are to resolve the tragedy of the commons and preserve our natural resources and wildlife, we must create a new paradigm for the environmental movement: Private property rights in natural resources and wildlife.
Robert J. Smith is Senior Scholar for CEI’s Center for Private Conservation. This article is excerpted from Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons by Creating Private Property Rights in Wildlife, originally published in the Cato Journal in 1981, and recently re-released by the Center for Private Conservation.