South Okanagan Nature  wildlife watchers 2
The Economics of Wildlife Watching

The greatest threat to wildlife across North America for the past century has been, and continues to be, the loss of habitat. Forests have been clear-cut, prairies have been ploughed under, grasslands have been over-grazed, wet-lands have been filled, rivers and creeks diverted, or channelized and cities and suburbs have expanded endlessly. Virtually everywhere in North America from the middle latitudes of Canada to south of the Mexican border, the story seems to be the same – the only good land is developed land. So often it seems that “raw land’ has no apparent value to society. Developers and their proponents on city councils argue that “development” will bring prosperity, jobs and an increased tax base that will benefit virtually everyone.

This month I want to address just one aspect of the “undeveloped land is worthless” argument. To do so I have to rely on several studies done by the US Government since no similar studies appear to have been done in Canada. However based on my extensive experience in the US (having lived and worked there for almost twenty years) I think it is pretty safe to assume that the results of these studies apply to Canada on a pro-rata basis. The US population is about 9 times the Canadian population so if we take one-ninth (11%) of the US figures, that is probably pretty close to what one would find in Canada.

The studies I refer to were done in 2001 and 2006 by the US Fish & Wildlife Survey. The 2006 survey is entitled “Wildlife Watching in the US: The Economic Impacts on National and State Economies in 2006”. The figures in these studies are pretty astounding as to their economic impact. About 71 million Americans participate in wildlife watching of some kind – this can range from simply putting out a bird feeder and watching the birds that show up to taking a cruise through the San Juan (Gulf) Islands to watch whales to partaking in an Artic eco-tour to photograph Polar bears. All of these activities involve spending money and they all have an economic impact that is much greater than most people imagine.

The report estimated that these 71 million Americans spent $45.7 billion (yes, billion!) pursuing wildlife watching. Of this about $23 billion was spent on equipment (cameras, binoculars, bird food, camping equipment, etc), $13 billion was spent on trips and $9.6 billion on other things (books, club memberships, etc) associated with their hobby. To put this $45.7 billion into perspective, the report states that this is equivalent to all the revenues generated from all spectator sports (baseball, football, etc), all amusement parks, bowling alleys and skiing facilities combined! The report further states that the total industry output associated with this $45.7 billion of direct expenditures amounted to $122.6 billion and produced over 1 million jobs. To get an estimate of the economic impact of wildlife watching in Canada, take 11% of all these figures. That’s a very significant economic force!

Certainly we know from experience that many people come to the Okanagan to watch wildlife, primarily birds, and these people come not only from BC but from across Canada, the USA and abroad and they spend money here on lodging, food, fuel, etc. Of course if we want them to continue coming we have to ensure that there is suitable habitat for the birds.


So when communities are considering what to do with their “empty land” they should consider that wildlife watching is a significant contributor to economic activity. Of course, the generation of economic benefits is not the only reason (and probably not even the main reason) for ensuring that we don’t develop the entire Okanagan Valley. But many times it seems the politicians don’t want to hear about the intrinsic value of open spaces so conservationists have to resort to trying to show the economic value of wildlife habitat. So if valuable wildlife habitat is under threat in your area, consider raising the issue of the economics of wildlife watching.

The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club next meeting is November 26th at 7:30 pm at the Penticton United Church on Main St. Kindrie Grove, widely recognized local wildlife artist, will present a slide show and talk that delves into the process and inspiration behind her work. Everyone is welcome. For more info on the Club contact Bob Handfield at: soncpres@telus.net
Nature Wise