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This ‘Bearish’ Economy Is One Most States Would Love To Have
July 14, 2023
This ‘Bearish’ Economy Is One Most States Would Love To Have
Often cast as liabilities and villains by politicians, grizzlies and wolves in Yellowstone region are bullish assets that keep delivering dividends—as long as they remain alive
Totems of Greater Yellowstone's "bearish" economy. The rarest natural wonders on a planet being increasingly tamed by humans have a worth that only grows over time. Wildlife, by itself, does not create environmental messes that need to be cleaned up and its abundance is what makes Greater Yellowstone stand out in the world. The two most popular animals that people come to see are grizzly bears and wolves, both products of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Illustration by Marshall Cutchin
by Todd Wilkinson
How much is a grizzly bear really worth? Or, for that matter, a gray wolf or bobcat? Apart from individual bruins, lobos and wildcats, what does it mean to have a sustainable, viable population of animals and what is the true meaning of biological recovery?
Maybe you’re familiar with the term “existence value.” It refers to the unquantifiable level of delight—call it awe—we humans derive from simply knowing something is there even if we never experience it firsthand or it doesn’t directly enrich us economically—like the sight of the moon, the Aurora Borealis hovering in the night sky, or that after you die believing there's a place for you in heaven.
Regarding grizzlies, wolves, bobcats and other animals, the value you place on existence value may be influenced by whether you reside in a setting where those species still exist, or whether you inhabit a landscape in which they’ve been long gone—and it’s become too difficult or expensive to ever bring them back.
This is why, in so many states, re-wilding and ecosystem restoration loom only as theoretical pipe dreams—and why states still holding onto their full complement of original large mammalian diversity, with animals able to move freely across vast distances, are extremely rare.
Only three states in all of the Lower 48 still have that assemblage and they happen to converge in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In this, the third decade of the 21st century, how is it that bears and wolves hold more economic value alive than dead here, despite existing in states where politicians resent their presence?
If you’re skeptical about arguments made by some economists who thrill in putting price tags on everything in nature in order to ascribe “value” and “send signals” to the marketplace about what is allegedly worth protecting versus what is expendable or worthless, we agree with you. It is an impossible mission to assign a fair monetizable value to all of the things, obvious and not, big and little, that keep a wild ecosystem healthy; just as it is absurd to accurately calculate the full value of “ecosystem services” or ponder the cost of trying to put an unraveling ecosystem back together again after it’s been stripped of essential parts—the most critical of those parts being functional habitat.
One might find this ironic: Could it be that having a strong “grizzly bear economy” and “gray wolf economy” are actually robust forward-thinking indicators, particularly within Greater Yellowstone where the foundation of our durable economy is nature; or to be more precise, an environment renowned for its high caliber of wildness boldly illustrated by the kind of wild native animals that can, for the time being, still persist here?
Most of us are familiar with the Wall Street terms “bullish” and “bearish” as they apply to investment prospects for making money in the stock market. Bullish refers to favorable economic conditions for reaping a future return on equities while bearish means a strong likelihood of falling share prices.
In a Recession, bearish conditions prevail, though in Greater Yellowstone a specific kind of bearish economy has actually helped the region persevere through a series of recent economic downturns that hit other parts of the country hard.
One might find this to be ironic: Could it be that having a strong “grizzly bear economy” and “gray wolf economy” are actually robust forward-thinking indicators, particularly within Greater Yellowstone where the foundation of our durable economy is nature; or to be more precise, an environment renowned for its high caliber of wildness boldly illustrated by the kind of wild native animals that can, for the time being, still persist here?
A positive impact that will ripple forward for generations: a couple and their young daughter express giddy excitement as they prepare to give their child her first look at a Yellowstone grizzly feasting on a bison carcass in Hayden Valley. Just above, a grizzly mother and cub represent the bullish essence of Greater Yellowstone's bearish economy. Photos courtesy Jacob W. Frank and Jim Peaco/NPS
In the rural West, old attitudes have proved difficult to shake. That’s evident in a disdain for wildlife carnivores, even if the biases against them, hardened in the 19th century, obviously no longer make economic sense. If you listen to the kind of rhetoric flowing out of the mouths of legislators in the state capitals of Cheyenne, Helena and Boise, and in Congress, and you make no attempt to ground truth their assertions, you might think grizzlies and wolves are wreaking terror.
In recent years, efforts have been advanced on Capitol Hill to revise the calculus which comes into play when considering whether species should receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act—i.e. classifying animals or plants as either threatened or endangered and taking aggressive courses of action to prevent them from disappearing.
Lawmakers often claim that having a listed species in their state exacts a heavy economic toll on the economy and livelihoods of citizens. “States, counties, wildlife managers, home builders, construction companies, farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders are all making it clear that the Endangered Species Act is not working today,” US Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming declared in 2017 at a hearing.
Fascinating about Senator Barrasso’s assessment is that federally listed species have not destroyed the economy in his state or any neighboring ones, nor slowed down home builders, construction companies, farmers, ranchers and “other stakeholders” such as coal companies, the oil and gas industry or the proliferation of other kinds of development.
Mr. Barrasso, a medical doctor by profession, says he wants the Endangered Species Act to work better so that it can fulfill its promise of recovering species. The point many scientists and wildlife conservationists make is that the ESA isn’t broken, it has prevented extinctions, and it would work far better if the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the plight of imperiled species, weren’t chronically starved by Congress of having adequate funding to do its job.
They invite Dr. Barrasso to ponder what would happen to chronically ill human patients—and the pocketbooks of medical professionals—if there were no health insurance, if those in triage could not afford long-term care to make full recoveries, and if society waiting outside the hospital emergency rooms wanted them dead?
One of the provisions proposed to reform the Endangered Species Act is mandating that the Fish and Wildlife Service first complete a thorough assessment of the economic impact of listing a species on humans before adding a candidate animal to the list.
In fact, such appraisals already happen, when Environmental Impact Statements are prepared on proposed listings as part of complying with the National Environmental Policy Act, but the new calibrated assessments, in essence, would give those who want to thwart listing greater sway over the scientific evidence that justifies it.
Reading, Pennsylvania where the senator was raised—and the bullishness of the nature-tourism economy— is very different from the northwest corner of his adopted state. Why is that?
Wildlife conservationists say the intent of those trying to block listings is to create the perception that saving species like carnivores is so costly and onerous that listing ought not to happen. It was this very rationale that the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, along with agricultural interests and big game hunting organizations, used, unsuccessfully, in trying to block reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995.
Many of those entities made claims that wolves would decimate elk and other big game herds, wreak havoc on the livestock industry, result in rural school children being eaten by lobos as they waited at their bus stops, and, as one outspoken Montana anti-wolf activist—the late Robert Fanning of Paradise Valley, Montana—said, “bring the greatest ecological disaster ever foisted on the West.”
Every single one of those outcomes didn’t happen and the assertions they would are controverted by reality. In the case of elk, wapiti numbers are at all-time highs in Wyoming and Montana and faring well in Idaho. Ranchers are complaining about “too many elk” eating grass that otherwise would wind up in the bellies of cattle and yet those states have very aggressive laws in place to kill wolves, which would actually help keep elk numbers in check without causing significant hardship to livestock.
Many of those entities made claims that wolves would decimate elk and other big game herds, wreak havoc on the livestock industry, result in rural school children being eaten by lobos as they waited at their bus stops, and, as one outspoken Montana anti-wolf activist—the late Robert Fanning of Paradise Valley, Montana—said, “bring the greatest ecological disaster ever foisted on the West.” Every single one of those outcomes didn’t happen.
For the record, let it be stated that Mountain Journal is sympathetic to the challenges ranchers and farmers face. We recognize the important contributions they make to community, wildlife and open space protection, delivery of ecosystem services, and, of course, the economy. But even the US Department of Agriculture, with the huge volume of statistics it generates, acknowledges that of all the existential threats facing the survival of ranchers and farmers, grizzlies and wolves are not two of them. They rank far below on a list that includes the high costs of producing food and fiber, kids not wanting to follow in their parents’ footsteps, land conversion to sprawl and high real estate costs making it harder to operate at scale, weather, disease, inheritance issues, accidents that injure animals and…coyotes. Did you know that nationwide, feral dogs and domestic canid pets off leash, by a huge margin, kill more cattle, sheep, goats and chickens than grizzlies and wolves?
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Now enter into evidence the example of ongoing recovery of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly. It’s been called one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in human history and it has inspired efforts in other counties to save species like tigers, lions, jaguars, rhinos and elephants.
Imagine if Congress, a half century ago, had halted grizzly listing based on the argument that bears were only liabilities to humans and therefore not worth protecting. In 1974, the year before Greater Yellowstone’s bear population was listed as “threatened” under the ESA, the perceived positive value of grizzlies, according to prevailing cultural attitudes at the time, was almost nil. Grizzlies, like wolves which had been exterminated in Greater Yellowstone by the 1940s, were treated as vermin that had no place in the modern world unless confined to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
Except for the small amount of revenue that could be generated selling bear hunting tags and the public fascination with potentially seeing a grizzly in Yellowstone (the chances of which were then incredibly rare), grizzlies were largely viewed only as dangerous economic liabilities, foremost by cattle and sheep growers who did, and still do hold dominant sway in state legislatures.
Had the accounting methods being proposed by the current Congress been in place then, Western lawmakers could have pointed to a negative balance sheet in measuring grizzly bear worth and used it to fight listing. Had they prevailed, it means that grizzlies might never have been recovered—one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in human history wouldn’t have happened.
What’s the value of grizzlies and wolves? How would you think differently about living or visiting Yellowstone if they were not here? All three Greater Yellowstone states—Wyoming, Montana and Idaho—railed against listing even as bear numbers tumbled to fewer than 140, most of them barely hanging on in Yellowstone Park and adjacent wilderness areas, and only a dozen or two breeding females of prime reproductive age were alive. Three things were key to preventing the ecosystem grizzly population from collapsing—halting hunting, punishing poachers, mandating better handling of trash to prevent them from becoming conditioned to human food, not impetuously killing bears just because ranchers didn’t like them, and most importantly, protecting habitat.
Fast forward to today. Because of federally-directed grizzly recovery and more bears re-inhabiting more places where they were previously extirpated, not only is grizzly bear watching a huge draw in bringing millions of visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, but so too is wolf watching. The latter also would not exist if the states had emerged victorious in their legal attempts to block restoration.
How do we know this? Because in Wyoming the state has said that grizzlies which move outside of the central core of protected areas, even if they re-inhabit public lands and cause no conflicts, will be classified as non-essential to recovery and thereby represent a ready supply to be hunted. With wolves, in 85 percent of the state they are not even classified as a game species and instead put into a special category of “predator” which means they can be killed 365 days a year, at any hour of the day, by virtually any means, even if they are causing no conflicts with livestock or proven to negative impact big game numbers.
In Wyoming, “predators” are not even viewed legally as being worth less than other species but worthless, as in being unwanted pests worthy of eradication, like rats or noxious weeds. Never in the history of the Endangered Species Act has a state on the one hand boasted about contributing to recovery of a species and simultaneously established public policy that not only condones eradication over 85 percent of its terrain but seems, by design, to foment social hostility.
If bears and wolves are not representing huge burdens on the economy, then why would they need to be removed from federal protection. It is this riddle that policy experts say undermines the very spirit of biological recovery the ESA is supposed to champion.
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Few elected officials in these states would deny that there’s a lingering resentful attitude about their forebears being forced to bring bears and wolves back—and a sense that having both of them delisted and their numbers reduced through hunting is about, in some way, appeasing their anti-carnivore constituents and getting even. Here, “shoot, shovel and shut-up” is still touted as a mantra of defiance, while existence value and the larger goal of achieving true biological recovery carries little currency.
Recently, after a grizzly was spotted and publicly confirmed for the first time in the Shields Valley of Montana, between the Bridger and Crazy mountains northeast of Livingston across Interstate 90, Congressman Ryan Zinke cited that as proof that grizzlies need to be delisted.
As Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary, Zinke signed off on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (temporary) second delisting of grizzlies in 2017. After that delisting was overturned by a court challenge from EarthJustice and other environmental groups in 2018—and just as Wyoming was about to commence its first sport hunt of grizzlies in 44 years—Zinke and western legislators now say they are pushing legislation to force a political delisting of bears as soon as possible—overriding biological concerns raised in the court case by EarthJustice and recognized by the federal judge.
Some lawmakers have done almost all they can to advance policies in state legislatures to keep numbers of bruins and lobos at their lowest possible minimum. How does that jibe with claims from Senator Barrasso and others like Congressman Zinke that they are committed to celebrating and bolstering biological recovery of those species?
A photograph circulated this week confirmed the presence of a grizzly bear in the Shields Valley of Montana. Young male grizzlies exploring new terrain is not uncommon and having individual bears wandering around is vastly different from them persisting in landscapes that are conducive to the survival of a healthy population.
Today, two of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in human history are colliding with landscapes being rapidly transformed by development and suburbanization which is creating less social tolerance for those animals. Pushes also are being made to expand energy development in the southern part of Greater Yellowstone and elsewhere, there are soaring numbers of human recreationists who prioritize their desire to play over protecting habitat and limiting their thirst for taking more terrain, and climate change which is transforming habitat. If Senator Barrasso and Congressman Zinke were grizzlies wandering through public lands in the Wyoming Range south of Jackson Hole or through ranchland in the Shields Valley of Montana, would they rate their prospects of survival as being good?
Again, one of the main reasons states want to have Greater Yellowstone grizzlies delisted isn’t a secret. They say it is about reclaiming states' rights over wildlife, but what does it mean? The two prime motives are to give private landowners more latitude to kill carnivores that are killing their livestock, without fear or prosecution, or posing a threat to their personal safety or property. That, to most people, sounds reasonable, but some fear it would result in more bears being killed without sufficient cause.
Another is to provide trophy hunting opportunities, partially based on the false premise that one of the main purposes of recovering species is to restore hunting—which, notably, is not the case with bald eagles. If delisting bears and wolves weren’t about restoring sport hunting, then would politicians be pushing it with such urgency?
The prime motive is provide trophy hunting opportunities, partially based on the false premise that one of the main purposes of recovering species is to restore hunting—which, notably, is not the case with bald eagles. If delisting bears and wolves weren’t about restoring sport hunting, then would politicians be pushing it with such urgency?
Although it’s been nearly half a century since the last grizzly was shot by a sport hunter in Wyoming, the prevailing rhetoric in the three states is they want to reward citizens who patiently waited for decades after the federal government deprived them of their desire to shoot bears for fun. And make it easier to kill bears without having to worry about prosecution. They also have asserted that selling hunting tags will raise significant revenue to help states recoup the costs of bear management. This brings us back to our central question: what is the worth of a grizzly bear, or wolf or bobcat?
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If the ESA has worked in rescuing bears and wolves—and yielded bullish economic dividends—then, again, a logical contrarian question is why should those animals need be delisted? Think about that for a moment. To date, the prevailing premise, and the argument made to thwart listings, is that they come at high cost to the states. But if that’s not true—if federal protection of bears and wolves has actually resulted in delivering a net financial gain to these states—then it requires not a reform of the law but a reassessment of how the law has been inaccurately portrayed.
Jonathan Schechter, who not long ago was re-elected to serve on the Jackson, Wyoming Town Council and who makes his living as an eco-policy analyst at his firm, Charture Institute, has a premise that some call “Schechter’s Maxim.” The gist of it is this: Economies change faster than perceptions; perceptions change faster than politics; politics change faster than policies and policies change faster than laws.
While people who universally love nature have demonstrated a deep yearning to connect with it, and a willingness to pay to experience its wildest manifestations, political leaders in the state of Wyoming are stuck with a rear-view window approach to the future. That’s apparent, Schechter says, in the state’s refusal to accept that the rest of the world has changed around it. He believes that outsiders coming to Wyoming better understand the negative consequences of wildlife-depleted environments than many of Wyoming’s leaders do.
Over time, conservation of nature has always been a shrewd investment, and it has paid compounding interest across generations, greater in magnitude and more enduring, Schechter says, than the cycles of natural resource extraction in Wyoming, all of which invariably have gone through traumatic periods of bust.
The state of Wyoming, portraying grizzly recovery as a burden foisted on it against its will, has, by its own estimate, spent more than $50 million on grizzly management since bears were federally listed in 1975. Grizzly bear tourism in the state today likely generates two or three times that amount of economic activity—if not a lot more—in a single year.
A decade or so ago, an informal social science survey of Yellowstone visitors found that the chance of seeing a bear or wolf ranked in the top three among reasons why people want to come to America’s first national park. The other was seeing Old Faithful Geyser erupt. Another study discovered that visitors would be willing to pay a significantly higher entrance fee to Yellowstone if it meant they had a better chance of merely seeing a bear. Yellowstone in recent years has had visitor levels 100 percent above what they were in 1975 when grizzlies were listed. In 2021, Yellowstone notched nearly five million visits, which is roughly ten times the state’s resident population.
Representatives of Wyoming Game and Fish often highlight how much it has cost the state to manage grizzlies as part of ongoing federally-mandated grizzly recovery.
While the federal government could certainly pay more in helping states deal with conflicts involving bears and wolves, it (i.e. US taxpayers), not the states, have actually underwritten the vast bulk of the costs associated with bringing those species back. Most of Greater Yellowstone, about 18 million of its 24 million acres, is comprised of federal public land.
American taxpayers have invested billions of dollars to fund the operating budgets of the national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management tracts and Native American reserves. That has resulted in habitat protection, which, in turn, has generated billions of tourism dollars and supported hunting and fishing. As we will see, those amounts dwarf the amount that Wyoming has paid for grizzly bear and wolf management.
Varying recent estimates from Game and Fish personnel and Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, among others, have put the sum of money Wyoming has spent on grizzly recovery at $52 million; that’s public dollars spent by the state since grizzlies were listed in 1975. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, it’s 50 percent higher, or $75 million.
That sounds like a lot of money. But is it when spread across a 50-year time frame? Here are some other stats that provide context. Every year the National Park Service releases findings of an economic impact study that estimates how much commerce the presence of a given national park generates. The core of Greater Yellowstone is comprised of two national parks—Yellowstone and Grand Teton—that stand side by side. It’s been demonstrated time and again that Yellowstone and Grand Teton or any national forest, wildlife refuge, BLM land or private land alone are not large enough to sustain healthy wildlife populations.
Had the states prevailed in portraying grizzlies only as economic millstones, and the Greater Yellowstone bear population was not listed in 1975, there might not be bears visible today in Jackson Hole and there probably would not have been a Grizzly 399.
The National Park Service economic assessments in recent years have, on average, pinned the annual combined value of Yellowstone and Grand Teton to be around $1.2 billion and it is also linked to about 15,000 jobs. It’s safe to assume the presence of grizzlies and wolves is a big part of that. Ponder, again, the study results above or ask any park ranger, hotelier, tour guide or restaurant waiter about what visitors are most interested in seeing.
Another fact worth noting is that until about 15 years ago, it was exceedingly rare to spot a grizzly in Jackson Hole. Prime grizzly bear watching, until then, happened in Yellowstone where the term “bear jam,” a special kind of wildlife-related traffic jam, was coined.
Around the time famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 started raising successive broods of cubs along roadside areas of Grand Teton in 2007, the grizzly population in and around Jackson Hole grew, expanded and became more visually accessible, creating world-class bear-watching opportunities that rival those in Yellowstone. It wouldn’t have happened if grizzlies in the ecosystem had not been federally listed. But what’s different today from 1975 is human development pressure and what some have dubbed “the Coloradoization” of Greater Yellowstone is in rapid escalation.
Given the fame of Grizzly 399, her daughter 610 and other mother bears, some of whom were bestowed with nicknames like Blondie and Felicia, it’s also a safe bet to say the economic value of bear watching in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone in a single year is at least equal, if not several times more, than the state of Wyoming has spent in total managing grizzlies across half a century. It’s a safe bet because we have, as a reference, the value of wolf watching in Yellowstone and bears have even wider appeal.
Again, had the states prevailed in portraying grizzlies only as economic millstones, there might not be bears visible today in Jackson Hole and there probably would not have been a Grizzly 399. “Recovering the grizzly has not, in any way, significantly brought hardship to the resource extraction industries in Wyoming,” says Dr. Christopher Servheen who for 35 years oversaw national grizzly bear recovery for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and who today, in retirement, sits on the board of the Montana Wildlife Federation and serves as an expert consultant for bear recovery efforts around the world.
Since grizzly recovery is actually yielding a net economic windfall for the states, and helping to generate jobs and goodwill among the public seeing those states as attractive destinations, should the states instead be expressing gratitude, not disdain?
Similar arguments can be made for wolves. The Montana legislature, Governor Greg Gianforte and his politically appointed Fish and Wildlife Commission approved unprecedented quotas for killing wolves statewide in 2021. This includes allowing individual in-state hunters and trappers to kill 10 wolves apiece. An entire Yellowstone wolf pack was destroyed when its members roamed outside the park into Montana. There was no compelling scientific reason that provided a basis for those quotas, as wolves were not killing a lot of domestic livestock or devastating elk.
The killings caused a major public backlash both in the state and nationwide. In its wake a new grassroots entity called the Wild Livelihoods Business Coalition arose and highlighted the value of live, watchable wild wolves to the local economy of Park County around the gateway town of Gardiner, Montana.
A study completed by research firm RRC & Associates and the Montana Institute for Tourism and Economic Research at the University of Montana found that park visitation to Yellowstone, with wolf watching cited as a priority, contributes at least $82.7 million annually to the local economy. And it’s rising.
That’s up from an estimate of $35 million a year calculated in 2005. People from across the country and around the world take vacations to Greater Yellowstone because they want to see free-ranging wildlife that they can’t easily see anywhere else. Two of the marquee species are grizzlies and wolves. “It must be noted that this value [82.7 million] includes only direct spending and does not account for the ‘multiplier effect within the 3-state economy of re-spending portions of this amount by workers and business owners,” authors of the study write. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which examined the results, added : “The study also found that 50 percent of the tourists who hire a guide or outfitter in Montana list wildlife watching as one of their primary activities, compared to the four percent who list hunting as the activity of choice."
Wolf watchers gather on a knoll in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley watching how packs interact and vocalize. In 1994, before wolves were brought back, the value of wolf watching to the economy of southwest Montana was zero. Within a decade, it had grown to $35 million and recently was estimated to be $82.7 million and rising. The value of Yellowstone and its wildlife has generated billions in economic activity for Montana. Instead of constantly complaining about the park and portraying Yellowstone as an imposition on his state, might Governor Greg Gianforte instead express gratitude to Yellowstone Supt. Cam Sholly and his staff for contributing exponentially more than it receives from Montana in return? Photo courtesy Diane Renkin/NPS
Wildlife watching ranks second, behind hiking, and just ahead of nature photography, in terms of the top three reasons why visitors come to Montana, with visitor expenditures on guides, lodging, meals, gas and gear pulsing through local economies. Around a quarter of a billion dollars are spent by out-of-state travelers in Park County, Montana, fueling the creation of 3.270 jobs and adding to local and state revenue. This flood of commerce is sustainable, year after year, as long as there are abundant opportunities to see animals.
When Governor Gianforte, who prides himself as being a shrewd business person, shot and killed a Yellowstone wolf that was caught in a trap outside the park, and, subsequently, when he later shot a transboundary Yellowstone mountain lion outside the park that had been treed by a houndsman who waited for the governor to arrive and kill it, he came to own the wolf and cougar, but what kind of “value” did wildlife watchers, the public and researchers forfeit?
This is a question that Upper Yellowstone Valley businessman Jeff Reed asks, and it is what motivated him, along with others who benefit from sustainable eco-tourism to ask; especially after Montana’s 2021-2022 hunting season resulted in one fifth of Yellowstone’s wolves being killed by hunters and trappers and social chaos erupting in some packs.
A few years earlier, Reed and an array of diverse business interests, conservation organizations and citizens formed the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, originally to fight proposed hardrock mines near Jardine, Montana near Yellowstone’s front doorstep and in the Absaroka Mountains at the foot of Emigrant Peak which rises above Paradise Valley.
Yard signs, advocating for passage of the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act in Congress, proliferated in southwest Montana. The signs declared that “Yellowstone is More Valuable Than Gold.” Indeed, who can argue; foundational to the accuracy of that statement is having a functioning healthy ecosystem that no amount profits from mining gold could artificially create.
How many things in this scene are more valuable than gold? When you protect landscapes that benefit grizzlies, it provides dividends for hundreds of other species. And when you have hundreds of other species, you have the foundation for a world-class sustainable tourism economy worth billions of dollars annually. Such landscapes also deliver clean water, absorb carbon and are truly renewable with no major infrastructure costs. The only challenge is not messing up a naturally-functioning system through poor decision-making. Illustration by Marshall Cutchin
Reed and colleagues sought to resurrect the business coalition in 2021-2022 and it morphed into the Wild Livelihoods Business Coalition. Ashea Mills, daughter of a father who was a fire lookout and fought wildland fires, works today in the wildlife watching safari business. She is member of the Wild Livelihoods Business Coalition.
Mills shares one anecdote among hundreds of things she’s seen. “What I really enjoy is seeing the power of education that happens when people discover that how they used to think about animals like wolves and grizzlies isn’t the way it really is,” she says. “There was a client on a wolf watching tour who spoke loudly about how wolves are killers that need to controlled. And the entire group jumped on him. I quietly encouraged them to give him a chance to see how things are with his own eyes.”
By the end of the trip, watching wolves in the Lamar Valley transformed his perspective. “By the end of our trip he said he had no idea how deeply he was going to fall in love with Yellowstone and observing wolves that morning pushed him over the edge to have another point of view, even though he admitted that he arrived hating wolves. Stories like that are common. Why would the state want to implement any regulations that would intentionally harm the ability of people coming to their state to have that kind of memorable experience? It doesn’t make sense.”
She adds, “If you’ve ever heard a wolf howl echoing off a canyon wall, it will shake you to your core. Places where this kind of experience can happen are so few and far between. It’s something that you can’t put a price on.”
To add more nuance to the points made by Reed and Mills, consider a paper published in a scientific journal co-authored by ecologist Mark Elbroch of the global wildcat protection organization, Panthera, Jackson Hole conservationist Lisa Robertson and two co-authors.
A few winters ago, Robertson had an epiphany after she enlisted a guide who ferried her via snowmobile to the banks of the Madison River in Yellowstone. There, she along with photographers and other wildlife watchers from around the world had converged to watch a bobcat, an elusive feline normally difficult to see in the wild.
This is the Yellowstone bobcat whose economic impact Mark Elbroch, Lisa Robertson and colleagues assessed. This lone wildcat, in a single year, was responsible for an estimated $308,000 in economic activity owed to what wildlife photographers and others were willing to pay to go view it. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Together with Elbroch, Kristin Combs and Jenny Fitzgerald, they set out to assess how much that single live bobcat was worth in generating commerce, versus the income generated by a bobcat lethally monetized for its fur. The results of an analysis, published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation in 2017, showed the Yellowstone bobcat was worth more than $308,000 for the regional economy over just a winter season.
That’s a value1000 times greater than the exploitive value of $315 that a trapper would net for a bobcat pelt. “Also consider, that this same living bobcat could generate the same figure again the following year, should it survive the summer season in Yellowstone,” Elbroch, Robertson and co-authors wrote, acknowledging, however, that a watchable bobcat outside the park would likely return less economic value. “But over its life, this bobcat in Yellowstone alone could generate well over $1 million in economic activity, shared across countless people involved in travel and tourism.”
At present, a fur trapper in Wyoming can purchase an annual license for less than $50 and kill multiple bobcats in a harvest season.
Besides the economic value of nature tourism, large- and medium-sized predators have incredible non-numeric existence value. They serve important ecological roles that do not factor into ledger sheets. “With millions of people coming through Yellowstone and Grand Teton each year, the value of living wildlife to local economies, visitor enjoyment, and even to those who may never visit these parks, cannot be emphasized enough,” said scientist Elbroch, who has conducted pioneering studies of cougars in Wyoming.
Kristin Combs, who is executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and previously oversaw programs for Wyoming Untrapped, has argued that state wildlife agencies, especially in a time of declining revenues due to declining hunter numbers nationwide, ought to honestly ponder how keeping wildlife alive in Greater Yellowstone continues to fuel tourism, Wyoming’s second largest industry.
“It is time that wildlife managers prioritize the value of wildlife for the community as a whole instead of only for the enjoyment or one-time exploitation by a single hunter or trapper,” Combs says.
The $82.7 million generated annually by Yellowstone wolf watching is greater than all of the reimbursement money paid to ranchers in the three states since wolves were reintroduced. Which is not to say that wolves don’t impact ranchers or aren’t a worry. It’s also obvious to say it’s far easier for a wolf watcher from Los Angeles to tout the presence of wolves in the Northern Rockies than what’s facing rural people who have wolves getting into their cattle and sheep herds.
What’s not often factored into the ledger sheets of agriculture is that society, because it values the contributions ranchers and farmers make to this country and to conservation, provides a multitude of subsidies to help them stay in business. The aid comes in the form of federal and state disaster relief from droughts, blizzards, fires and insect outbreaks that affect production, an array of free ag services including tools for implementing non-lethal ways to keep carnivores at bay, loans to get producers through tough times, below-market-value rates charged to graze livestock on public land, predator control from the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, and lower tax rates than what property owners pay in cities.
In the big picture, how much of a burden do wolves and grizzlies represent to the livestock industry in the three Greater Yellowstone states?
While reimbursement for livestock losses is part of the fair deal that comes with bringing those species back, important to note is that after the state of Montana allowed the killing of 25 Yellowstone wolves—one in five of the total park population when they wandered outside the park—no safari guides or outfitters were reimbursed for their lost opportunity costs.
When a grizzly or wolf is killed by a sport hunter or trapper, especially in close proximity to a park, the sustainable enjoyment of that animal known to thousands of people then accrues only to a single individual, who comes to possess the animal in its death, like Gianforte did with the wolf and cougar he shot.
Any economist worth her or his weight in gold can figure out what is the more bullish scenario to maintain a healthy nature-based economy. On that point, rural residential sprawl, which destroys wildlife habitat and makes it more difficult for ranchers and farmers to operate at scale, also costs counties (taxpayers) more money to service than the amount of tax dollars taken in.
Should the counties whose planning policies result in hardship and added cost for ranchers and farmers and make it more difficult for publicly-valued wildlife to persist, which benefits wildlife watchers, eco-tourism operators and hunters, therefore be compensated for the economic impacts they are incurring?
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To return to the theme of “the grizzly bear economy” and dueling perceptions of how bears can be monetized, states say the sale of grizzly hunting tags will be a revenue generator, a way for them to recoup part of their investment in grizzly conservation on expenditures they treat, for the most part, only as liabilities and hassles.
It’s obvious that grizzlies and wolves prey on livestock and wildlife and, again in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, ranchers are reimbursed for losses, and a vast majority will claim not enough. In a story written by Angus M. Thuermer Jr for Wyofile, he notes that in fiscal year 2019, Wyoming paid out $646,168 to cover livestock losses owed to grizzly bear predation, at a rate of compensation that for every steer or calf lost to a bear, a rancher is reimbursed 3.5 times the value of a single calf and paid market value for a cow or yearling. The state pays seven times the value of every calf killed by a wolf.
Wolf depredation payments were $201,291. That year, Wyoming paid out slightly less than $1 million in total reimbursement for ranchers suffering economic loss related to wildlife (that includes, for example, elk breaking fences). Some years it’s more. About 46 percent of the payout for wildlife impacts went to cover grizzly depredation and wolf payments accounted for 14 percent. According to Thuermer’s report, the bulk of the livestock losses to bears were cattle. Wyoming Game and Fish said grizzlies killed 176 cattle, ranging from 76 steer calves to full-grown cows.
Now, a bit of context that can be added to Thuermer’s report. There might be a handful of smaller cattle and sheep operators who incur more than average losses of livestock to bears and wolves, but they are the exceptions. Plus, through use of guard dogs and other non-lethal techniques, better pasturing and caretaking during calving and lambing seasons, employing range riders and other strategies, predation can be markedly reduced.
According to the Wyoming Farm Bureau and national statistics compiled by the US Department of Agriculture, there are around 1.3 million cattle in Wyoming. The total value of the agriculture sector in Wyoming in 2019 was $1.83 billion. Of that total, animals and animal products accounted for $1.13 billion. Cattle and calves ranked at the largest livestock commodity raised in the state, followed by hogs and sheep.
In 2018, 11,900 farms and ranches used 29 million of Wyoming’s 62.34 million acres to raise agricultural products. Farmer and rancher cash receipts totaled $1.55 billion. The point is there are a lot of cattle and sheep on the landscape and 99.9 percent are not being eaten by bears and wolves. In the big picture, the costs of reimbursement to ranchers for cattle and sheep lost to grizzlies and wolves is miniscule.
To accent that point and for comparison, Minnesota has the largest wolf population in the Lower 48. For decades the population has ranged between roughly 2500 and 3000 individuals—equal or greater than the total number of wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho combined. Minnesota also has 2.2 million cattle. In the upper one third of the state, where most of the wolves are, there are hundreds of thousands of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and pets.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has paid out, on average, about $135,000 to settle about 110 wolf depredation claims annually. "In 2019, authorities verified 74 calf kills, 11 cow kills, two sheep kills, two dog kills, and 10 'other' animal kills in Minnesota, and 13 animals—mostly calves wounded by wolves," wrote reporter Greta Kaul with the non-profit journalism site, MinnPost. "The state made payments on 78 claims, totaling about $107,000."
Minnesota has the largest wolf population in the Lower 48. For decades the population has ranged between roughly 2500 and 3000 individuals—equal or greater than the total number of wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho combined. In the upper one third of the state, where most of the wolves are, there are hundreds of thousands of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and pets. In 2019, the state paid $107,000 to settle 78 claims, a far cry from a picture of wolf-related economic devastation painted by politicians.
This is not to diminish the added costs, stress and impact some ranchers and farmers endure but the rhetorical public outcry over these carnivores and the amount of attention politicians give to them over other more formidable threats is grossly disproportionate to the actual reality of living in grizzly and wolf country. This includes the misguided perception that dwelling in landscapes with grizzlies and wolves is hugely perilous but given the number of people moving through it, statistics show that’s just not true.
At a hearing in Washington DC on efforts to legislatively delist grizzlies, former national grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen testified against the bills. He offered counterpoints to claims from U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman of Wyoming and US Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana that grizzlies threatened the safety and livelihoods of livestock and rural people. In fact, "most grizzlies and wolves do not kill livestock noting that in Montana in 2022, grizzlies and wolves combined killed 218 sheep and cattle or eight one-thousandths of one percent of the total population of cattle and sheep in the state. And livestock producers were compensated.
In the story from The Western News, Servheen said it's clear, given the trends of how wolves are treated in the three states and recent legislation that states would attempt to "legislatively minimize grizzly bear numbers inside recovery zones and eliminate most grizzly bears outside recovery zones."
Servheen testified in Washington DC that it's clear, given the trends of how wolves are treated in the three states and recent legislation that states would attempt to "legislatively minimize grizzly bear numbers inside recovery zones and eliminate most grizzly bears outside recovery zones."
Servheen said it's clear, given the trends of how wolves are treated in the three states and recent legislation that states would attempt to "legislatively minimize grizzly bear numbers inside recovery zones and eliminate most grizzly bears outside recovery zones."
The economic argument made by the Wild Livelihoods Business Coalition that Yellowstone’s wolves are worth far more alive than dead outside the park ultimately influenced Pat Tabor, a member of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission appointed by Governor Gianforte. Tabor admits that he isn’t objective. He’s been involved with a big game hunting and outfitting business in northwest Montana and many of his votes on the commission have been strongly anti-carnivore, as in favoring reduction of their numbers.
Business leaders in Park County made it clear to him that eliminating wolves was taking an anti-business position and it was undermining the positive public image that Montana spends millions of dollars annually trying to foster through tourism advertising. As a result of educating Tabor on facts, he joined former commissioner Pat Byorth and current commissioner K.C. Walsh, both of Bozeman, in lowering wolf killing quotas in hunting districts adjacent to Yellowstone.
“What’s been driving arguments to kill more wolves is politics and it came off as a grudge against Yellowstone, which really pissed me off,” Reed said. “It was so small-minded and stupid. We are damned lucky, in this part of Montana, to be located inside the main corridor leading to the front entrance of the most famous national park in the world. So many of us make our money off of Yellowstone because we’re fortunate to live and work here and have a concentration of wildlife here that would be the envy of any other state outside of Greater Yellowstone. Montana was really engaging in a tactic of cutting off one’s nose to spite its face.”
Scientists say having healthy populations of carnivores such as wolves, bears and cougars also provide beneficial effects in slowing the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease, the always-fatal malady now moving through populations of the deer family of species (deer, elk, and moose) across the county. In Wisconsin, a study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal showed that wolf presence along some of the state's busy highways resulted in fewer vehicle collisions with white-tailed deer. Fewer collisions mean fewer people killed or injured. Also poignant, the economic savings realized through deer-vehicle accident reduction is 63 times greater than the costs of verified wolf predation on livestock.
Although Tabor shifted somewhat in his thinking about about the value of transboundary Yellowstone wolves, he recently led a surprise charge to markedly increase the number of mountains lions allowed to be killed in Park County near Yellowstone over opposition even from some houndsmen. Critics of Tabor say the proposed 40 percent increase in allowable killing of cougars, based on unproven claims it will benefit ungulate populations, is not warranted.
Servheen, the former national recovery coordinator for grizzly conservation in the US, is a hunter of ungulates and proponent of the role hunting has played in wildlife conservation. But he says “hunting is not a replacement for professional management of grizzly bears.” Killing bears does “not teach grizzlies to be fearful of humans” or result in better co-existence between people and bears.
The three biggest threats to grizzly bear survival, he says, are loss of quality habitat to human activity especially in areas outside the national parks and wilderness areas, lack of social tolerance, and ecological ignorance which, he says, has informed public policy. Grizzlies and wolves should not be welcomed in the suburbs, Servheen notes, but the question for humans is do they want the suburbs to fill up rural valleys where bears and other wildlife can still roam. The latter only leads to more conflict and more dead bears and wolves.
That is how the wild goose laying the golden eggs will perish.
When bears are alive, they are held as part of the public trust. They belong to everyone and no one at the same time. It’s an animal that, in the moment before a trigger is pulled, may have mesmerized hundreds, thousands, even millions of people, accruing “value” over time.
In the process of randomly awarding hunting tags, individual grizzlies like 399 become privatized and claimed by only a single individual human. What was a true “renewable” and arguably priceless resource year after year while alive is devalued by being cashed out. This is why grizzlies as a viable population, along with the importance of individual bears easily accessible to viewing, are worth exponentially more alive than dead.
What’s happening in Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies is an experiment that’s playing out and being closely watched around the world. How the states here prevent or slow its de-wilding will inform how other states approach re-wilding.
Dana Hoag, who is a professor of agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University led a study released through the Regional Economic Development Institute that examined the costs of benefits of restoring wolves to Colorado. Reintroduction is happening there because citizens of Colorado went to the polls in 2020 and narrowly passed 51 to 49 percent, a ballot proposition to restore wolves beginning this year. Most voters in Colorado live along the Front Range extending from the border with Wyoming on the north to the southern border with New Mexico.
“The vote to reintroduce wolves generated division and animosity among some Colorado voters. One likely cause of turmoil lies in the asymmetric distribution of benefits and costs of the reintroduction,” Hoag and co-authors Jesse Burkhardt, Benjamin Ghasemi and Robin Young wrote. “For example, most Coloradans will never see a wolf in the wild, and even fewer will have an encounter with one. This means that the average Coloradan will experience the benefits of reintroduction mostly by knowing that wolves will once again occupy the state. Economists call this a ‘warm glow’ benefit. But costs are more consolidated and visible to those people that experience them. If you are a rancher who worries about wolves preying on your livestock, or make part of your living leading deer, elk or moose hunts, you probably are more focused on the potential costs. A typical person might be unaware of who will be hurt by the reintroduction of wolves, simply because these costs are less well known.”
Interestingly, among those who voted “yes” for reintroduction, the survey showed an expressed willingness to pay up to $72 per person to establish a statewide population of 200 wolves whose management includes compensating livestock producers for direct losses and lost production related to potentially lower pregnancy rates of cows. Voters who want wolves back were also willing to pay a little more to help advance non-lethal protection of livestock against wolves.
One of Hoag’s take-home messages is that if more of the economic benefits of wolves were poured into heftier automatic reimbursement for ranchers losing livestock, it would help offset the angst that exists in farm and ranch country—social terrain already being traversed in Greater Yellowstone.
If Senator Barasso, his colleagues Senator Cynthia Lummis and Congresswoman Harriet Hageman of Wyoming, along with Senator Steve Daines, Congressmen Zinke and Matt Rosendale of Montana, and members of Idaho's congressional delegation really want to help the ESA and rural constituents, they would increase federal funding for compensation to ranchers and farmers, increase the budget for the Fish and Wildlife Service, and make more people who are experts in non-lethal carnivore management available.
You can’t take a fortune to the great beyond with you but you can use your largesse to have a positive lasting influence after you’re gone. Another myth that has to go, Lee Nellis says, is the one that makes heroes out of developers who are praised or gain status for plundering the natural world.
Lee Nellis, a professional planner with decades of his life focused on protecting rural landscapes in and around Greater Yellowstone, says that West needs to invent new mythologies. By that, he means new cultural and social belief systems, reflective of the times in which we live, while abandoning old dysfunctional ones. Some of those are the belief that in order to have economic prosperity you must subdue nature, or categorizing animals, based on outdated notions, as “good” or “bad,” “assets” vs. “liabilities,” and also stop setting public policies where balance sheets are informed by fairy tales.
Economics are important, but, like religious faith and possessing inner spirituality, doing better by the land and other beings inhabiting it involves morals, ethics and knowing there are things more valuable than money as a sole metric, he says. Another myth that has to go, Nellis says, is the one that makes heroes out of developers who are praised or gain status for plundering the natural world. You can’t take a fortune to the great beyond with you but you can use your largesse to have a positive lasting influence after you’re gone.
To their profound credit, most farmers, ranchers and hunters in Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies have quietly found better ways to co-exist with carnivores and they are doing it in an admirable way, out of the public eye, every day, and they are deserving of national praise. They are way head of the politicians. The lessons they are providing in being creative, adaptable, and future-minded thinking are remarkable—and they are charting a new way forward—even for 21stcentury agrarians in the Old World of Europe who are contemplating re-wilding and but whose ancestors’ hostile attitudes toward carnivores were imported to this continent.
Like Greater Yellowstone’s robust bear and wolf economies, ranchers, too, rely upon having adequate habitat to persist and maneuver. What’s the value of a grizzly or a wolf or protected habitat? Yes, the answer depends on how one sees the world. If the public wants those species to hold premium value, then it needs to better take the economic arguments of perceived negative impact off the table. One place to start is to tout the clear and irrefutable benefits of Greater Yellowstone’s bearish and wolfish economy. It's no fairy tale; it's for real—and if we're not careful, it won't be sustained.
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