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June 5, 2024

Wildlife viewing, pristine ecosystems, photogenic landscapes – how would you convey the economic value of the seemingly priceless resources and experiences that National Parks provide? While it can be difficult to put a value on nonmarket goods and services, in a new study, economists from the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey developed an approach for doing just that with bears.

Putting a price on the priceless

Management of high-profile wildlife species can be complicated. On one hand, some species inflict costs on humans through conflicts like property damages, livestock depredations, and injuries. On the other hand, the same species can generate immense value to society: people like viewing wildlife and benefit from wildlife contributions to ecosystem health. To evaluate wildlife management policies, a manager would ideally be able to compare costs and benefits in an apples-to-apples way. If a policy were expected to change the number of animals in the wild, would society be better off or worse off? Said differently, would the change in benefits overshadow the change in costs? Economic costs can be relatively straightforward to quantify. For example, data may indicate that a species kills a certain number of livestock per year, and livestock are priced in markets. So, one could multiply the number of livestock lost by the market price of livestock to estimate overall cost. Benefits, however, can be trickier to quantify, in part because there are not market prices for many important types of benefits. Managers of parks and protected areas around the world are often tasked with communicating the economic value derived from those areas, even though there are no associated prices. For example, there is no market price that directly reveals how much people are willing to pay for a wildlife sighting – but just because such a price does not exist, that does not mean there is no value from that sighting!

That’s where economists come in. Using a method called “nonmarket valuation,” they can help managers estimate and communicate the value of goods and services that are not traded in traditional economic markets. 

“In general, goods and services that don't have market prices tend to be under-valued, potentially even ignored altogether in things like benefit-cost analysis. For example, you might hear about a high-profile wildlife damage incident in the news, where an animal caused $X in property damages. That number sticks in your mind because that’s devastating news for some unlucky household. But you often don’t hear anything nearly as specific from the benefits side. A big chunk of what I try to do in my job is quantify values for things that don’t have market prices, to create a fuller picture of the total value, both good and bad, generated by a natural resource” (Aaron Enriquez, Research Economist, USGS).

To address the gap, economists from the National Park Service (NPS) and USGS collaborated on an approach to quantify multiple types of benefits from wildlife viewing: the value of an individual wildlife viewing trip, the value of an individual animal sighting, the aggregate value from all animal sightings over the course of a year, and an individual animal’s contribution to aggregate sighting value. The latter measure is key: individual animals generate a continuous stream of viewing benefits, and that entire stream is lost if an individual animal is lost. The economists applied their approach to grizzly and black bear viewing in Yellowstone National Park, where bear viewing is a highly popular draw for visitors, thereby creating measures of bear benefits that can be weighed against existing estimates of costs imposed by bears. 

How much do Yellowstone National Park visitors value bear sightings?

The economists used data from a visitor survey that provided information about people’s bear viewing trips, including trip numbers and associated travel costs. They also gathered other data, like seasonal park visitation estimates, bear population estimates, and estimates of the amount of time visitors spend both in parks and in parks specifically viewing bears.

The economists found that an individual grizzly bear sighting is worth approximately \$16 while an individual black bear sighting is worth approximately \$14. Aggregating across all visitors and sightings, grizzly bears and black bears generate about \$6.9 and \$9.7 million per year, respectively, in sighting value. Additionally, the economists teased out the amount that an individual animal contributes to viewing value over the course of a year: roughly \$46,000 for a grizzly bear and \$15,000 for a black bear. The economists conducted sensitivity analysis to show how those amounts depend on the visibility of a bear: if only a proportion of bears frequent roadside habitats (where most visitors see bears), then the value stream per highly visible bear can be substantially larger.

Image: Cars line up in Yellowstone National Park to view grizzly bears. These "bear jams" are common across the park. (NPS)

Grizzly bears by the road

What we've done is tried to quantify just one small piece of the total economic value of bears, by estimating a `use’ value from bear sightings. The entire total value of bears would be higher, especially if one accounted for ‘non-use’ values like existence value.  As more types of values get filled in over time, we’ll continue to have a better picture of how much society benefits from bears” (Aaron Enriquez, Research Economist, USGS).

Implications for wildlife management

Human and bear populations are closely intertwined, and the activities of one affect the other. Sometimes human activities result in isolated bear mortality incidents, for example when a bear is struck by a vehicle or illegally poached. The NPS conducts damage assessments when park resources, including wildlife, are injured or destroyed. To date, it has been difficult to quantify the loss to society from small-scale population changes, such as the loss of an individual animal. This study introduces economically grounded estimates to fill the gap.

Through various bear management strategies, wildlife managers influence the bear population. In turn, bears generate streams of both costs and benefits to society. The bear viewing value estimates from this study can help improve benefit-cost analyses that predict economic effects from potential changes in bear management. This allows for evaluating what-if scenarios (for example, from proposed changes to Endangered Species Act listing status).

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