An International Auction for Romanian Wild Brown Bears
In late August 2017, the Romanian Government, through the Ministry for the Environment, decided to allow the shooting of 140 brown bears in the Carpathian Mountains as an administrative measure to curb the bear population in the country, which in some areas is threatening peasant livestock and even the safety of town dwellers. Although the Government backpedalled on its decision in the face of strong pressure from the public and conservationist groups – who accused it of giving in to the hunting industry’s lobby and spurious bear population statistics –, ultimately reaffirming its ban on the trophy hunting of bears and other protected species in the country, it is worth reflecting on how economics can balance public and private interests in the management and conservation of wildlife.
Outside of Russia, Romania harbours Europe’s largest brown bear population, estimated with considerable uncertainty at over 6.000 specimens and representing around 40% of the European total. This incredibly rich livestock of large wild mammals has in recent years attracted the interest of dedicated conservationists worldwide as well as businessmen seeking to cater a rich cosmopolitan clientele of hunters, who would pay even $15.000 for a kill. Thus, according to the local press for instance, even Donald Trump’s eldest son and heir to a large part of the Trump family fortune has made a hunting trip to the country in spring last year, which however involved wild boars not bears. Consequently, husbanding the wildlife, especially with regard to large mammals like bears inhabiting areas too close to human centres, and settling the competing claims and visions of different organized social groups has become increasingly important, but also difficult for policymakers.
The Romanian televised press often features funny or scary moments with scavenger or wandering bears in cities and towns close to the Carpathian Mountains which give some support to the contested idea of bear overpopulation. To the extent that bear overpopulation is real and a systematic issue in Romania, and not a made-up statistic produced by a combination of poor data and collusion of interests between the state’s forestry agents and the hunters’ lobby, as one partial study suggests, the question arises: instead of adopting an oblique and possibly even corrupt administrative measure of bear population control such as the one proposed by the Government last year, which has provoked and will provoke interminable clashes between conservationists and other organized interests, why not simply auction the surplus bear population?
One possible way out of the conundrum is to do what many economists recommend when there are conflicting demands to rare resources: design a market.
In other words, one possible way out of the conundrum is to do what many economists recommend when there are conflicting demands to rare resources: design a market. The Romanian Government, which owns the brown bears as part of the public domain, should – after conducting an impartial and well-founded census regarding the size and growth rate of the bear population – sell the rights to the surplus brown bears through transparent periodic auctions.
The auction would allocate rights to the surplus fauna to the interested partied that feels most about it, be it hunters or conservationists. In this way, conservationist groups who feel strongly about the fate of the bears listed to be shot for reasons of population control can purchase the animals and relocate them to wild refuges like the one created a few years back in Zărneşti, Braşov County, or even in other countries where the European brown bear is extinct or very rare. If the wild game industry wins the rights to the animals, the government would have at least obtained in a transparent fashion some much needed revenue that can be used, among other things, to finance public investment in the local communities close to the bears’ habitat. In this way, both villagers and local authorities will become aware that the bears can be a source of value even when they inflict damages to the livelihood of local people.
For some people, it may seem cruel to kill the troublemaking bears (though culling is an important part of wildlife management), while others would want to get rid of them by any means and as soon as possible. Although it does not directly address the auxiliary issue regarding perverse incentives and collusion in the reporting of bear numbers, the public auction offers the best and most transparent way to reconcile these differences in opinion when and if an unsustainable surplus of bears does in fact arises. Like any market, an auction allocates property rights, which are basically decision rights. In this case, the use of money for settling decisions can break the deadlock in the political process of arriving at a decision.
Non-profit conservationist groups can pool resources, through donations, sponsorships, membership fees and subscriptions to wildlife reserves like the already mentioned Bear Liberty Park in Zărneşti to compete with the game industry lobby and resources instead of collective action through marches, protests and sit-ins.
A well-designed auction does not have to be an all-or-nothing, winner takes it all, contest.
Someone might object to this resolution procedure, arguing that, when it comes to money, non-profits can hardily compete with rich businessmen and for-profit enterprises. The two forces might not be equal, but they never really are at any one point in tine. However, a well-designed auction does not have to be an all-or-nothing, winner takes it all, contest. A simple allotment of the wild bears in groups of 5 in an auction, for instance, reduces the likelihood that all the 140 bears the government considered a burden to human habitation would be bought by the game industry, since each additional allotment of 5 bears bought by a hunting association or a game firm becomes less valuable to that bidder and therefore some bear allotments will be more affordable and consequently saved even by less well financed non-profits.
Because of its size and importance to the European wildlife heritage, the fate of the brown bear population in Romania is destined to become a contentious issue not only for the present but also for the years to come, inside the country as well as internationally. The use of auctions in managing its growth, composition and distribution can alleviate the contentious politics and social value clashes that have come to surround it, while at the same time improving public management of the wildlife stock by infusing much needed transparency and accountability in a country where corruption remains a grave concern.
 Popescu V.D., Artelle K.A., Pop M.I., Manolache, S., Rozylowicz L. (2016), „Assessing biological realism of wildlife population estimates in data-poor systems”, Journal of Applied Ecology, 53(4) : 1248-1259.