Thursday, July 26, 2007

US Government Sends Sheep to Death

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might be setting aside 400,000 acres of habitat for the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. The land will be a de facto commons--officially protected but in practice much too hard to enforce. I'd wager that this graceful animal is in for a rough time: with only a handful of rangers protecting it and legions of men with guns wanting to kill it before their competition does, it appears the US government is setting up a classic tragedy of the commons.

But this historically disastrous set up is not the only problem the sheep faces. One of the reasons it's numbers fell was because the herds would intermingle with domestic sheep and disease would pass from the farm animals to the wild ones, causing mass deaths. With nobody owning the bighorns, nobody was there to care what the sheep did to them (though there was certainly those that were watching their domesticated herd for signs of problems). In this case, the sheep farmers were externalizing a cost onto the wild. But nobody owned the wild so nobody noticed. Not until it was too late.

Instead of preventing the average person from wanting to protect these animals, the US government should look into allowing to own, kill, and profit from them. That way there will be legions of those making sure the bighorn stays around for a long time, instead of legions trying to beat each other to the last one.

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