THE NEW WEST: Wildlife Accounting

By on July 12, 2017

What a study says about the value of a Yellowstone bobcat over a single winter.

Winter Beauty by Tom Mangelsen/mangelsen.com. (Photo: Tom Mangelsen)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – For years, conservationist Lisa Robertson and a devoted group of friends in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have tried to elevate public awareness about the moral and ethical issues tied to fur trapping.

The practice inflicts pain and suffering upon animals that get caught in leg-hold traps, some that chew off their feet to escape. “Non-target” species are also victims. They are often killed or wounded by head-crunching conibears and family pets are severely injured by traps set along public hiking trails. Still, trapping watchdogs have been largely unsuccessful getting government officials to consider reforms to trapping regulations.

Through the nonprofit wildlife conservation organization Robertson co-founded called Wyoming Untrapped, the perceived atrocities of trapping have been continually highlighted on social media. 

Recently citizen outrage surged again when a grizzly bear on Togwotee Pass was photographed with a bone-breaking conibear, likely set for pine marten, clenched to a front paw. The bruin’s prospects for survival were uncertain because of the permanent damage to its appendage.

Behind the scenes, wildlife managers I know in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho admit that many aspects of trapping are anachronistic.

After all, few if any citizens actually make their living by trapping. Although traplines may be part of the lore of rustic mountain men, they no longer serve a compelling societal purpose in the 21st century, especially as demand for fur continues to fall, critics say.

As Robertson has long noted, wildlife traditionally treated as nuisances by states—be they wolves, grizzlies, or, it turns out, even bobcats—are worth far more alive to local tourism economies than dead. Evidence, however, has been lacking.

Two 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 National Park. There, she along with photographers and other wildlife watchers from around the world had converged to watch a bobcat, an elusive animal normally difficult to see in the wild.

The seeds of an idea grew from Robertson’s experience, and the fact that a Thomas Mangelsen photograph of the same bobcat became a popular image on social media and in his gallery.

Working with Mark Elbroch, a biologist with the international wildcat conservation organization, Panthera, Robertson set out to make an assessment: how much that single live bobcat was worth in generating commerce versus the income from a bobcat lethally monetized for its fur.

The results of an analysis published this week in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, showed the Yellowstone bobcat was worth—brace yourself—more than $308,000 for the regional economy over just a winter season.

That’s a value 1,000 times greater than the exploitive value— $315—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 and Robertson write, acknowledging, however, it would likely return less economic value outside the park. “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 $44 and kill as many bobcats in a harvest season without limit. 

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.

The bobcat study also has implications for the debate over whether Wyoming should restart a controversial sport hunt of grizzlies when—or if—bears are permanently removed from federal protection and handed over to state management.

“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,” Elbroch said. He has conducted pioneering studies of cougars in Wyoming.

Robertson is convinced that were other cost-benefit analyses done for a number of species in Greater Yellowstone, they would yield similar compelling results.

Kristin Combs, program director of Jackson Hole-based Wyoming Untrapped, has argued that if 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 said.

Elbroch says the study isn’t definitive. It is meant to elicit a reaction and ignite a better dialogue, not come across as an attack on trapping and hunting.

For Robertson, societal respect and appreciation for wildlife has evolved. It has profoundly shifted since the days of the frontier when the value of animals was based solely on revenue generated through their lethal consumption. “We are smarter now,” she said. “Our policies need to reflect it.” PJH

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. He is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 featuring 150 pictures by renowned wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen. Autographed copies available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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