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The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park

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Recently it was reported in the Livingston Enterprise that visitors to Yellowstone National Park contributed $493.6 million in spending in communities near the park. That spending supported 7,737 jobs.

And this research does not include all the jobs and income resulting from those with footloose businesses and/or retirement that they bring to communities like Livingston, in part, because people want to live near protected lands like Yellowstone.

This should raise some questions in people’s minds about how livestock production harms and compromises the natural and economic values that Yellowstone National Park sustains.

For instance, we know that wolves are killed outside of Yellowstone, in part, due to pressure from the livestock community to limit predators. Yet one of the attractions for many visitors of Yellowstone are wolves. A recent scientific paper released in the past week showed that killing wolves outside of the park resulted in a 45% reduction on wolf sightings in the park. Similar killings of grizzly bears to protect livestock interests also compromises grizzly recovery.

The Yellowstone River’s premier status as a trout fisheries is largely due to the fact that the water that flows past Livingston comes pouring out of the park, while most of the river’s tributaries in Paradise Valley are sucked dry by irrigators growing hay for livestock. I can easily make the economic argument that water that stays in the streams growing trout is far more valuable than producing hay.

Another attraction of Yellowstone are sightings of bighorn sheep. But domestic sheep transmit disease to wild bighorns. A major die off of wild bighorns near Gardiner was a direct result of contact between domestic animals and wild bighorns.

And as bison are set to become the national animal, we continue to kill bison that migrate from the park. This is appalling because the park’s bison are genetically unique as the only sizeable population of continuously wild bison in the country. Yet we continue to kill them and prevent them from migrating out of the park, even on to other public lands—again to appease ranching interests.

Elk and elk viewing and hunting are a big part of the economy of south central Montana, yet studies demonstrate that when cattle are present, they socially displace elk into less favorable habitat, thereby compromising their ability to thrive, not to mention the bulk of forage on public lands is allotted to domestic animals, reducing what is available to wildlife like elk.

I haven’t even gotten into how cattle compact soils, trash riparian areas, spread weeds, pollute the water, and many other impacts associated with their presence but are regularly “externalized” to the land and other citizens.

A true cost accounting would demonstrate that ranching is a major liability for the regional economy, harming many other natural attributes that are the basis for our growing economy—based on quality of life attributes associated with places like Yellowstone.

Given the growing contribution of natural values to the economic vitality of the region, it would be wise to reconsider whether continued livestock grazing on public lands makes any sense at all. Certainly it is not sensible from an ecological perspective, but it could easily be argued that allowing livestock production to continue on our public lands degrades other important values that are the main drivers of our regional economy.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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