Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Ownership and the Regulation of Wildlife

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Ownership and the Regulation of Wildlife

Article excerpt


The use of wildlife resources is governed by a combination of private contracts and public regulations. Most often, private landowners control access rights, and government agencies regulate hunting and other uses. This paper shows that these institutions depend on wildlife values and the ability of private landowners to control access to species that inhabit their land. Logit regressions and literary sources are used to test implications about private hunting rights and state regulations. The data support the view that private, legal, and political forces have led to institutions that vary in ways consistent with wealth maximization.


Most resources are not exclusively private or public, but are governed by a mixture of private and public institutions. In the United States wildlife populations are no exception. State governments usually regulate hunting, trapping, and fishing; federal agencies protect endangered species; and private landowners largely control access rights to habitat. Although it is true that owning deer or elk is different from owning cattle or sheep, the facts refute the common assertion that wildlife are unowned or have no value. Existing laws and regulations define property rights to many dimensions of wildlife, and in many areas access rights to wildlife are routinely bought and sold.

Economists typically view private contracts as arrangements that maximize the value of resources governed by the contract. On the other hand, public institutions are given less credit. Becker [1983], Peltzman [1976], Stigler [1971], and others have argued that interest groups can influence political decisions and ultimately distort outcomes. From an efficiency viewpoint, private and public institutions are distinct.

Barzel [1989], Becker and Murphy [1988], McManus [1975], and Wittman [1989] have advanced an alternative view that institutions, including government, not only reflect the optimizing activity of individuals but also maximize the net value of resources. Alchian [1950] argued that persistent and surviving institutions are likely efficient. Because most features of American wildlife institutions have persisted for two centuries, the likelihood of efficiency seems high relative to the likelihood of pervasive inefficiency. In part, I test this efficient organization hypothesis by treating both private and public wildlife institutions as the result of efforts to increase the value of wildlife. Specifically, I argue that the content of private wildlife controls and government regulations depends on the value of wildlife stocks as well as on the ability of landowners to contract with each other and with wildlife users to control wildlife stocks and access to them.


It is costly to establish ownership of wildlife stocks because the ownership patterns of land do not always coincide with the populations' territories. If a stock of wildlife is the only valuable attribute of a parcel of land, then the value of the land is maximized when land ownership coincides with the population's territory. Under these conditions, wildlife would be quite similar economically to domestic animals. The habitat would still be "natural," however, and the species would still be considered "wild." Below, I consider the usual case in which wildlife is not the only valued use of land.

Optimal Landownership and Wildlife Territory

Assume that a homogeneous tract of land has two potentially valuable attributes: agriculture and wildlife. Next, assume that the size of the wildlife stock is not influenced by agriculture. Finally, assume that the stock of wildlife is composed of homogeneous units (that is, individual animals), and that the value of wildlife is tied to the value of the animals and not to the value inherent in the existence of a species.(1)

If the land is used for agricultural production, then the optimal size of the land tract in acres is [S. …

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