March 19, 2007
Of Elephants and Bison

Readers of Cafe Hayek have probably seen the link to Karol Boudreaux's piece urging Kenya's government to allow trophy hunting of elephants to increase the country's elephant population.

Now comes a Time piece on how ranchers are responsible for increasing the bison population. Excerpts:

Sometimes you have to eat an animal to save it. That paradox may disturb vegetarians, but consider the bison: 500 years ago, perhaps 30 million of these enormous mammals inhabited North America. By the late 1800s, several forces--natural climate changes and Buffalo Bill--style mass killings among them--had slashed the bison population to something like 1,000. And yet today North America is home to roughly 450,000 bison, a species recovery that has a lot to do with our having developed an appetite for them.

Conservationists saved a few--there were probably more bison at the Bronx Zoo in 1900 than there were in all of Oklahoma--and gradually bison were reintroduced to natural habitats like the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. But it wasn't until the '70s, when ranchers began acquiring bison with an eye toward encouraging a boutique meat market (Native Americans, Old West enthusiasts, health nuts), that the species rebounded in numbers significant enough to ensure genetic diversity and protection against disasters like that 1841 freeze. Today private owners care for 97% of the world's bison population, according to Cormack Gates, who chairs the World Conservation Union's North American Bison Specialist Group.

The ranchers care for bison because they can make money selling their meat.

This really shouldn't come as a great surprise. If you make elephants more valuable by allowing trophy hunting or bison become more valuable because of changing diets then people have an incentive to preserve and create more of the animals.

The article also takes on some myths about bison, Native Americans, and 19th century settlers. ATSRTWT.

Note to co-blogger Wilson: Didn't you write a similar piece about chickens 10 years or so ago?

Posted by E. Frank Stephenson at 11:30 PM in Economics

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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