Thursday, December 23, 2004

Conservation run Amok

Spring 05 Classes



I received a Christmas card last night from some old friends who live in northern Wisconsin and in the enclosed annual letter they mentioned that Paul got his deer early this year – unfortunately he bagged it with his car. It cost over $700 to repair the damage to the car and this is the third time my friends have had to pay for damages to this car resulting from collisions with deer.

In a way my friend was lucky – according to the University of Wisconsin's Deercrash.com website, 367 people were killed in animal-vehicle crashes nationally in 2003. In a recent Wall Street Journal article (de gustibus: Bambi Buys The Farm, December 10, 2004, page W17) reporter Mary Anastasia O'Grady reports that, according to a 1995 University of North Carolina study the annual cost of property damage resulting from animal-vehicle accidents was $1.2 billion and most of the "animals" involved in these crashes were deer.

Deer, once thought to be vanishing, are now thriving to the point where they are becoming a menace. The eastern half of the U.S. is overrun with them and the population keeps growing. A century ago conservationists, fearing that deer would become extinct, turned to the government (state governments in this case) for help. Government policies may or may not have saved the deer from extinction. But these policies have definitely helped to increase the population to the point where it is now out of control. Yet, like all government policies, once in place it is very difficult to turn them around. The bureaucratic mindset can only concentrate on one thing at a time – if bureaucrats designed cars they would solve the problem of getting the car moving by installing a gas pedal. But it would probably take years and millions of crashes before they realized that people also need to stop cars and, hence, require a brake pedal as well. So the current bureaucratic solution to the deer problem is to continue to bow to the hunting and "Bambi lovers" lobbies by limiting the hunting of deer and keeping it illegal to raise deer commercially for meat. While, at the same time coping with the accident problem by funding research studies (Deercrash.com is a service of the publicly funded University of Wisconsin) and running safety education programs – all of which result in the spending of more money on top of the $1.2 billion being spent on property losses caused by deer.

Proponents of the free market frequently point out that the reason rhinoceros are an endangered species and cows are not is that cows are property and belong to identifiable individuals while rhinoceros are owned by all and looked after by none. Get the government out of the rhinoceros protection business and let people own them and rhinoceros will no longer be endangered according to free marketers.

However, the deer problem one of too many not too few, so is there a role here for the free market? It just so happens that the free market can help. In the same de gustibus: Bambi Buys The Farm article, O'Grady reported on a conference sponsored by the Bozeman, Montana based Property and Environment Research Center and described how New Zealand used the market to solve their deer problem.

Former Cabinet Minister Maurice McTigue spoke at the conference and told how New Zealand legalized deer farming and repealed the laws outlawing the sale of deer meat. Deer now had value and could be owned as property. Entrepreneurs quickly began rounding up the deer, put them on farms and began selling the meat. Some deer still exist in the wild but they are no longer a problem and the rest of the deer population has been domesticated on farms with the population reduced to a manageable, and economically viable size.

In addition to solving the deer population problem, a new industry, the raising, processing and selling of venison, was created. And, thanks to laws in the United States (state laws), Canada and elsewhere, New Zealand has become the major exporter of venison. Unlike tariffs, which are designed to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, the conservation laws in other countries act as a reverse tariff, protecting the foreign (in the case New Zealand) producers from competition from their own citizens. It is illegal to harvest venison domestically for commercial purposes but it is legal to sell venison harvested abroad.

Given our huge deer population and the costs of transporting venison from New Zealand, American producers of venison would probably have a comparative, if not an absolute, advantage over New Zealand producers in the North American market. But our politicians, bowing to special interests, insist on maintaining their present policy of protecting deer from commercial interests on the one hand while, at the same time spending billions repairing property damage and trying to educate people on how to cope with the out of control deer population.

Meanwhile, New Zealand has solved the problem and given their economy a boost in the process.

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