Pricing the Priceless: What’s Wildlife Worth?

Pricing the Priceless: What’s Wildlife Worth?

Aldo Leopold once pondered Canada geese calling from high above and asked what goose music was worth, and wondered where we’d be without it.

As Leopold wrote in his Round River journals: “Some have attempted to justify wildlife conservation in terms of meat, others in terms of personal pleasure, others in terms of cash, still others in the interest of science, education, agriculture, art, public health, and even military preparedness. But few have so far clearly realized and expressed the whole truth, namely, that all these things are but factors in a broad social value, and that wildlife … is a social asset.”

Measuring Worth
Over 70 years later we still mull such questions and try to weigh hunting in monetary terms. After the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service surveyed hunting participation in 2016, it estimated hunters spent $25.6 billion nationwide that year. Those billions included a 15 percent jump in spending on hunting trips, and a 27.5 percent increase in spending on taxidermy and camping gear.

That same year Professor Craig Miller at the Illinois Natural History Survey calculated that every duck shot in Illinois was worth $453 to the state’s economy. Miller also calculated that every dollar spent by Illinois waterfowlers generated $1.86 for local economies. In fact, duck and goose hunters supported 2,556 Illinois jobs and paid $20.5 million in state and local taxes.

But the question remains: What’s a hunt worth? Can it be reduced to dollars and cents? If you could set such prices, would they be the same for Saturday rabbit hunts, DIY backcountry elk hunts or opening weekend hunts from Northwoods deer shacks?

Or, how about a limited-entry, one-week goose hunt with a one-bird bag limit near the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in east-central Wisconsin? According to two researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, waterfowlers valued that hunt at $63 in 1978 or $183.50 in today’s dollars.

Professors Tom Heberlein, a rural sociologist, and Rich Bishop, a rural economist, devoted a lot of time, research and other people’s money to determine that $63 value. And they considered dollars a worthy way to express it.

“Hunters don’t like to think about their recreation in dollars-and-cents terms, but when someone drains a marsh to produce valuable crops, we all lose wildlife,” Heberlein said. “Our study helped show that wildlife is valuable, too.”

Heberlein agrees with Leopold that economists, sociologists and biologists try “many fancy ways” to assess the value of hunting and wildlife. But he thinks most assessments miss a simple point: “If you really want to know what something is worth, the best way is to buy it,” he said.

So Heberlein and Bishop designed their 1978 study to learn the fair-market value of a weeklong goose season in which 14,000 hunters received a free permit with a one-goose bag limit. The researchers randomly drew 232 names from that pool, and cut a check to each hunter ranging from $1 to $200, including 15 checks for $100, 15 for $150 and 15 for $200. In addition to several $1 checks, the other 187 were for $5, $10, $20, $30, $40, $50 and $75.

They also included a letter stating: “If you cash our check, you must send us your hunting permit and not hunt geese in the Horicon zone.”

Only one hunter cashed the check and kept the permit. “We knew that was a risk, but our experience with hunters is that they’re fun, honorable people,” Heberlein said.

How did the other 231 hunters respond? Of the 15 receiving $200 checks, 13 cashed out, but two returned their checks and went hunting. Those two valued their hunt at $582 in today’s dollars.

No one receiving a $1 or $5 check cashed out. “Those who we offered a dollar got angry,” Heberlein said. “Every one of them refused.”

Afterward, Heberlein and Bishop ran the numbers to learn what a hunter’s version of “goose music” was worth. “At Horicon Marsh in 1978, the potential of one goose and a week of hunting was worth $63 if you had to buy your permit from another hunter,” Heberlein said.

Even so, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and state legislators never used the study to jack up goose permit prices. The same tag today is free and only commands a $3 application fee.

Big Game Values
Western wildlife agencies chuckle at prices like $63 or even the inflation-adjusted $183.50 fee. Nonresidents buying Western big game licenses often pay 10 times the price paid by state residents, and demand isn’t slowing. As discussed in a previous article, nonresident applications and license sales in states like Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have risen faster than resident rates since 2012.

Several Western states also “ask” what a hunt is worth by auctioning special tags as annual conservation fundraisers in cooperation with the Safari Club International, Mule Deer Foundation, Wild Sheep Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and National Wild Turkey Federation.

Arizona, for example, has auctioned special tags since 1984 when it sold two desert bighorn sheep tags for $64,000 and $82,350. Since then it has added special tag auctions for elk, buffalo, turkey, javelina, whitetail, mule deer, pronghorn and mountain lion. Arizona’s annual auctions raised a total of $146,350 for those two sheep tags in 1984, and a record $2.67 million for its full roster of special big game tags in 2016.

In fact, from 1984 through 2018 Arizona has collected $33.89 million from those auctions. During that time, bighorn sheep have generated $10.62 million in the auctions; elk, $8.72 million; and mule deer, $8.66 million. Auctioned javelina hunts have raised $128,186 since 1999.

As of Feb. 22, so far this year Arizona has auctioned a statewide mule deer tag for $330,000, a desert bighorn tag for $265,000, an elk tag for $240,000, a whitetail tag for $55,000 and a pronghorn tag for $44,000.

Restitution and Compensation
Arizona and others states also assess the value of individual birds, fish and mammals, which helps judges and prosecutors set restitution and penalties for poaching, wasting or illegally possessing these publicly-owned natural resources. Fines vary by species, and often increase relative to an individual animal’s size.

Ohio, for example, uses a formula based on the Boone and Crockett Club’s scoring system to determine deer poaching penalties. The process doesn’t require the Ohio DNR to use an official scorer. The calculation takes the gross B&C score, subtracts 100, squares the result, multiplies it by $1.65 and adds 500 to determine the restitution amount.

If a buck’s gross antler score is 180, the formula reads: (180-100)2 x 1.65 + 500. Answer: $11,060.

Western states have far more big game species to protect, some with a higher value than whitetails. Montana, for example, sets these standard fines.

  • Mountain sheep and endangered species, $2,000. A ram with at least one horn equal to or greater than a three-fourths curl, $30,000.
  • Elk, wolf, moose, caribou, bald eagle and black bear, $1,000. Elk with at least one 6-point antler and grizzly bears, $8,000.
  • Deer with at least one four-point antler, $8,000.
  • Moose with at least a 30-inch antler spread and mountain goats, $6,000.
  • Pronghorns with at least one horn longer than 14 inches, $2,000.

Colorado, meanwhile, sets these minimums and maximums.

  • Animals listed as endangered or threatened: at least $2,000 and no more than $100,000.
  • Bald eagle, golden eagle, mountain goat, desert bighorn sheep: at least $1,000 and no more than $100,000. Bighorn with at least a half-curl horn, $25,000. Mountain goat, $10,000.
  • Elk, bear, moose or mountain lion: $1,000. Elk with at least one 6-point antler, $10,000; bull moose, $10,000.
  • Deer, pronghorn: $700. Mule deer buck with at least a 22-inch inside antler spread, $10,000. Whitetail buck with at least an 18-inch inside antler spread, $10,000. Pronghorn with one horn at least 14 inches long, $4,000.

Common Denominators
After detailing the many fines, prices, social assets and restitution amounts in this article—and typing 65 dollar signs into the text—are we any closer to assessing the value of every hunt, individual species and myriad individuals we evaluate?

Not likely. But maybe we’re asking too much of ourselves. After all, when we tally a loved one’s talents and qualities, we trivialize them in the process.

Besides, even Aldo Leopold grew frustrated when trying to assess wildlife’s worth, and left us with this enduring question: “As compared  with other sources of health and pleasure, what is (a wild goose’s) value in the common denominator of dollars?”

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