PERC Reports offers optimism and encouragement to climate change doomsayers. PERC advocates free market solutions for environmental problems, finding solutions where others find only frustration. The current issue (Fall 2007) uncovers a reason for faith in capitalism, the system that PERC fellow Brian Yablonski argues has fostered the reemergence of the American bison through ranching and revenue-generating “trophy hunts.” Also in the issue, author Mitch Tobin lauds the federal government’s proposed $400 million tax break program for landowners who help protect threatened species on their property. In Tobin’s estimation, the bill could help bring landowners and public interest together.
Great editorial from Terry Anderson and good piece on “Bisonomics” in your last issue. Maybe it’s my accelerating age but your work has found increasing resonance. Keep up the good work.
Author, Freelance Writer
Brian Yablonski (Fall 2007) does an excellent job of describing how an entrepreneur can take a resource that isn’t worth much and transform it into a valuable commodity. However, he errs in saying “the tragedy of the bison is one of the starkest examples of the tragedy of the commons.” A tragedy of the commons occurs when a resource is consumed more rapidly than it would be if well-defined and enforced property rights existed. In other words, the institutional framework leads to over-use. The primary reason bison did not remain abundant on the Great Plains after 1880 is not because they were unowned, although that fact might have sped up their slaughter. But, bison were a costly way to convert grass to meat in comparison to cattle, and if there would have been rights to bison on the parts of nineteenth century ranchers most of them would have been killed and cattle would have replaced them.
In the 1880s, a buffalo hide (the only part of a bison that could be easily shipped to eastern markets) was worth $3 in Miles City, Montana. A cow was worth $20 to $25 (see The Not so Wild, Wild West by Anderson and Hill 2004). Ranchers understood the economics of bison ranching versus cattle ranching and hence made no efforts to stop the hide hunters.
Yablonski is correct in his description of private entrepreneurial efforts to save bison, but those entrepreneurs took action when the numbers had been decreased enough that the marginal value of a bison for ecological or curiosity reasons had increased. When there were 10 million bison on the range, the value of a bison preserved for the future was small; when the number approached 1,000, some future-minded entrepreneurs decided to take steps to preserve the species. The fact that there are now more than 250,000 bison in North America attests to their farsightedness.
Professor of Economics, Wheaton College
PERC Senior Fellow