Bobcats are pretty rare in Yellowstone, you see, and even in areas where the cats are common they can be difficult to spot. But in recent years, at least one cat has managed to make a living along the Madison River by ambushing ducks and other birds that ply these waters year-round. What’s more, the bobcat’s exploits have caught the attention of wildlife outfitters and photographers who now schedule entire expeditions around observing and capturing the feline on film.
To get a better idea of just how much money this one animal was generating for the local community, Mark Elbroch, the puma program lead scientist for the global wild cat conservation organization Panthera, started contacting outfitters and photographers to tally up their expenditures and earnings. By crunching costs, from filling up a gas tank and guide fees to gear purchases and revenue earned from photo sales, Elbroch and his colleagues found that the Madison River bobcat brings in well over a quarter of a million dollars each year. Their findings were published last week in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
Elbroch and his colleagues note that wildlife tours and photography royalties are not the only way to make money off bobcats. Wyoming is one of 39 states where you can purchase a license to hunt or trap the animals, which makes money for the state. Those pelts can then be sold into the global fur trade, which makes money for the hunters and trappers. In this alternative reality in which the Madison River bobcat winds up dead, the researchers determined, a single bobcat is worth approximately $315.17.
Translation: A bobcat’s economic value depreciates almost 1,000 times the moment you put a bullet in it.
Elbroch admits that there are some caveats to consider. Obviously, a high-profile, somewhat easily accessible bobcat in one of America’s largest and most heavily trafficked national parks will be worth more than the average kitty doing its best to stay hidden in the woods.
It’s also not necessarily an either/or scenario. In the 2015-2016 season, close to 3,500 people bought trapping licenses in Wyoming, yielding $151,954 for the state, the study says. Just 284 of these licenses yielded bobcat pelts, none of which interfered with the ecotourism revenue created by the Madison River cat. (There may be as many as 3.5 million bobcats in the United States.)
Still, Elbroch said, we’re seeing more and more of these scenarios pop up in places less well-known than Yellowstone.
“Photographers flock to the Marin Headlands in California to photograph raccoons, because they are easy to see there. They flock to Island Beach State Park in New Jersey to photograph approachable red foxes,” Elbroch said.
So if there’s a place where people regularly see bobcats, then there’s opportunity for people to invest time to learn their routines, do a little advertising and create a source of ecotourism revenue. “The tourists will come,” Elbroch said.
This is not the first study to come to the conclusion that living, breathing wildlife is worth more than steaks, pelts and trophies. A study conducted in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia found that in 2012, bear viewing out-earned bear hunting by a margin of nearly $14 million. And there have been similar findings about sharks in the Caribbean, elephants across Africa and sea turtles found all over the world.
But isn’t it kind of icky to assign dollar figures to a living thing? Elbroch said he’s not particularly fond of the practice, because it seems counter to the notion of an animal’s intrinsic worth. But in the end, money talks.
“Bobcats fly under the radar almost everywhere,” said Elbroch. “People rarely think about them at all, so an economic comparison seemed an appropriate strategy to call attention to them, especially given the disparity in the numbers between the Madison cat and a trapped cat.”
Renowned biologist Stuart Pimm also sees value in these sorts of estimations. Pimm said there’s been a tendency on the part of some politicians to view the environment as an inconvenient hindrance to the success of American commerce. To which he says, and this is a direct quote: “Poppycock.”
To put it into economic terms, you need look no further than the 330 million people who visited national parks in the United States last year, said Pimm, who is currently the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University. Think about how much money all those visitors spent on entrance fees, picnic lunches, binoculars and hotels.
“Do they all see bobcats in Yellowstone? No, but the notion that there are wild things out there inspires them,” Pimm said.
Lisa Robertson, co-author of the new study and president of Wyoming Untrapped, an organization seeking to modernize the state’s trapping regulations, embarked on several bobcat-watching expeditions recently to see what all the fuss was about.
“I’ve lived in Wyoming for 25 years and have never seen the elusive bobcat,” Robertson said.
But when she finally saw the Madison River bobcat? Robertson says she could hardly breathe.
“There is a special ‘high’ in the rare experience of seeing a free-roaming bobcat,” Robertson said in an email. “The filmmakers are focused primarily on the big animals in Yellowstone, but this little ‘big’ cat is just as magnificent.”
For his part, Elbroch said the study should not be viewed as a call to end hunting and trapping altogether, but instead an opportunity for further conversation about reforming hunting and trapping regulations based on the best science available.
Such decisions may have particularly heavy impacts for states like Wyoming, where tourism brings in more money than any industry save mining. And bobcats are only one species of concern.
Earlier this summer, the Interior Department announced its decision to remove Yellowstone area grizzly bears from the endangered species list, which could open the door to hunting seasons — a reality that Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk has said he worries could affect visitor experiences. And already this year, members of Congress have proposed three separate pieces of legislation that would strip gray wolves of Endangered Species Act protections across their remaining range.
So, yes, it may feel a little strange to calculate how many greenbacks a bobcat’s worth. But according to Pimm, “This isn’t the time to be squeamish about protecting our nation’s heritage.”