Defenders of Wildlife Offer Montana Ranchers Incentives to Help Preserve the Wolf Population


Issue #2

June 1995

During the past winter, with much fanfare, federal officials transported 14 wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park in the hope that the wolves will make their home in the park. (Wolves used to inhabit Yellowstone but the Park Service killed them off early in this century.) This wolf reintroduction program will cost taxpayers over $7 million and has created endless controversy between environmentalists and ranchers. At a time when the U.S. Congress is looking for ways to control the deficit and reduce government intrusion, perhaps other ways of protecting endangered species should be considered.

Hank Fischer, the Northern Rockies representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, has an alternative that is worthy of praise. For many years, Hank has wanted to see wolves back in the Northern Rockies, including Yellowstone National Park, but he also understands why livestock owners oppose wolf reintroduction. Wolves kill livestock, and ranchers consider them a liability. Hank has been trying to change the incentives.

Imagine a Montana rancher telling his cowboys not to disturb a pair of wolves raising a litter of pups. Such a scenario is almost unimaginable in a state where ranchers commonly assert that “shoot, shovel, and shut-up” is the best way to handle endangered species. But in 1994 a rancher near Augusta, Montana, chose not to disturb a wolf that successfully raised three pups.

Part of the rancher’s motivation was a reward offered by the Defenders of Wildlife. Defenders was willing to pay the rancher $5,000, the first cash award under its private program designed to encourage the natural regeneration of wolves in Montana.

The cash award program is Hank Fishcer’s brainchild. In 1987 he recognized that ranchers were opposed to wolf recovery because they feared wolves would kill their livestock. To overcome the opposition, he took, in his words, “a foray into free market environmentalism” by establishing a Wolf Compensation Fund to pay for livestock depredation. So far, the compensation fund has paid $12,000 to about a dozen ranchers.

But Fischer recognized that this was only half of the free-market equation. In 1992, he established another private fund to reward any private landowner for giving wolves a home. “We’re experimenting to learn whether the carrot of economic incentives can be more powerful than the stick of the Endangered Species Act,” says Fischer. Following the argument of free-market environmentalists, Fischer is attempting “to turn endangered species recovery into an asset rather than a liability.”

The Defenders’ programs contrast sharply with the governmental approach using the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and millions of taxpayer dollars. Under the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service can severely restrict the use of any land, private or public, that has endangered species habitat. Needless to say, ranchers surrounding Yellowstone fear that their land will be controlled by the government if and when the transplanted wolves wander out of the park (as they already have done on a small scale). It’s little wonder that private landowners hesitate or refuse to divulge the existence of an endangered species on their land, let alone encourage their propagation.

Why not turn the incentives around, as Hank Fischer’s program has done? Make habitat for endangered species on private land an asset, not a liability. The Defenders program has won the support of free market environmentalists such as myself and it has been applauded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ed Bangs, leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery team, says: “This program should be a model for others who want positive solutions to complex environmental problems.”

The Endangered Species Act needs some success stories, and adopting the carrot rather than a stick approach could help provide them. Under the stick (the present policy), only 27 species have been removed from the endangered or threatened list during the past two decades; many of these were removed due to errors in the original listing.

Imagine what could happen if private owners of timberlands were paid $5,000 for every pair of spotted owls nesting on their property! The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently rents land under its “Conservation Reserve Program.” Why not rent land from private owners who control key endangered species habitat?

The success story with wolves should provide the impetus for innovative changes in our approach to endangered species. Hank Fischer is right when he says: “Economic incentives offer a greater likelihood of public acceptance than increased regulation.”

About the Authors: Terry L. Anderson is a Senior Associate of PERC (the Property and Environment Research Center), 2048 Analysis Drive, Suite A, Bozeman, Montana 59718 (406-587-9591; fax: 406-586-7555). Terry Anderson is co-author with Donald R. Leal of Free Market Environmentalism (Pacific Research Institute, 1991). E-mail:

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