Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons by Creating Private Property Rights in Wildlife

R.J. Smith CPC Study on Private Conservation

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During humanity's relatively brief existence on this planet, it has relied on the bounty of its flora and fauna for his existence. For most of history, this exploitation had little impact on the earth's resources. Only in recent centuries has man's exploitation of wildlife begun to have a deleterious effect, even though there is increasing evidence that primitive societies had a profound impact on many species. Overexploitation of wildlife is not a peculiar characteristic of Western civilization, nor is it a consequence of commerce.

Many animal species that have disappeared or have been drastically reduced were at one time found in truly enormous numbers. Why are some species disappearing and others thriving? In those cases where human activity has contributed to species declines, it is clear that the problem of overexploitation or overharvesting is a result of the resources being under public rather than private ownership. Wherever we have public ownership we find overuse, waste, and extinction; but private ownership results in sustained-yield use and preservation.

The salmon fishery provides a nearly perfect example of the differences between private and common property management. As a common property resource, they belong to everyone, can be caught by everyone, and essentially belong to no one. Because no one owns the salmon, each user is pitted against all the other users, and the result has been a rapid depletion of the stock. Fortunately, salmon are a highly desirable fish, and American entrepreneurs are attempting to remove them from the common property trap. Outside the United States we also find a different situation. In some European countries, salmon fisheries are in much healthier shape because the rights to the salmon or the salmon rivers are privately owned.

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 game ranches, were established to generate profits from private hunting. If emotional objections to such arrangements can be put aside, it is clear that game ranches produce many positive results, as many of the animals they stock are disappearing in their native countries. If the profits gained by giving hunters access to exotic game can provide the economic incentive for landowners to manage animals on a sustained-yield basis, some species will be saved.

Under private property ownership, others are prevented from exploiting resources and there are incentives for the owner to preserve them. This protection is not solely motivated by the possibility of economic gain. Many examples of successful private conservation were fostered for the pleasure of owning and breeding attractive or rare wildlife or due to a commitment to the preservation of vanishing species.

The disappearance of wildlife has nothing to do with commerce or a lack of reverence for wildlife. The more rapid disappearance of common property wildlife during the past century is due to the fact that much larger human populations are using it, more efficient means of capture and kill are employed, and a larger number of uses has been found for some species. Furthermore, many of the most populous species of wildlife had been reduced to a severely depleted state long before the development of modern business and commerce. This is especially true regarding sea turtles.

The problems of overexploitation and extinction of wildlife appear to derive consistently from their being treated as a common property resource. Example after example bears this out. It is also predicted by the economic analysis of common property resources. The proper path toward resolving the vexing issues of wildlife conservation lies in removing wildlife from common property resource treatment and creating private property rights. This poses a direct challenge to the basic philosophical beliefs of many environmentalists. But 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.