Last year’s massive winter bison migration from Yellowstone National Park caused significant damage to surrounding ranches. Says one landowner: “When we’ve got 30 to 40 [bison] coming through my place at one time, they want to go through the fences, rub on my house, destroy my irrigation pipes.”
Federal and state authorities captured and returned as many as they could to the park during the rough winter, but many were still left to roam and cause damage to property and livelihoods. As opposed to a private owner whose animal roams onto another’s property and causes property damage, Park officials are not liable for bison damage. Fed up with the current situation, Montana cattle ranchers and county officials filed a suit in federal court asking the District Judge Wayne Phillips to decide whether bison from the park should be able to roam freely on adjacent ranches.
The southern African nation of Namibia has a more severe problem of wildlife-human conflicts — e.g., marauding lions that kill livestock as well as humans. But it took a property rights approach to the problem — one that allows those who bear the costs of free-roaming wildlife to reap the rewards. In the mid-1990s, the national government took the bold step of turning ownership of the wildlife back to the people through community ownership. In so doing it allowed local residents living in wildlife corridors to benefit not only through jobs at these conservancies but joint ventures with wildlife businesses. Instead of government and outside entities garnering the returns from the rising value of wildlife tourism and safari hunting, local residents could now benefit. As a result, attitudes from locals changed.
Consider this response from a local landowner. He lost six of his sheep when a leopard came into his corral one night. Naturally he wants to be compensated for his loss, but unlike the situation around Yellowstone he is also sensitized to the overall value of leopards to the economy: He responds to the leopard loss differently: “The economy of the country is going up because of these animals.”