All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1992

Of Skunks and Salmon

James Maccaro practices law on Long Island, New York.

Environmental bureaucrats are trying to regulate Mother Nature, with disastrous results.

In New Hampshire, state officials attempted to attract recreational fishermen by reducing the state’s skunk population. For a while, the plan seemed to work because it alleviated vacationers’ fears of encountering the odorous beasts. Soon, however, anglers noticed that the fish population also was shrinking, and decided to vacation in neighboring states with more plentiful stocks.

State planners later learned that skunks control the snapping turtle population by eating their eggs. Without the skunks, the turtle population of New Hampshire grew almost unchecked. The over-abundant turtles, in turn, feasted on fish eggs and thus decimated the fish population. Eventually, New Hampshire officials had to import skunks to re-establish the natural balance.

Another attempt to improve on Mother Nature’s work occurred in Montana, where the state introduced mysis shrimp into rivers to feed the salmon which flourished there. However, the tiny shrimp soon consumed large amounts of plankton, which is a major food source for salmon. As a result, the number of salmon spawning in Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park fell from 100,000 to a mere 200. Moreover, bald eagles, which were attracted to the park by the fish, now bypass it. From a peak of 639 in 1981, only 13 bald eagles were last counted in the park.

Because of the chain reaction started in a state bureaucrat’s office, Glacier National Park has an abundance of minuscule shrimp, but few salmon and even fewer eagles. The park thus no longer attracts so many visitors, whose trips to the area to view the eagles greatly contributed to the local economy. From a peak of 46,000 tourists, only 1,000 visited during the 1990 fall season.

Government planners are no more successful in micro-managing the natural world than they are in regulating the economy. When government tries to correct perceived problems, it creates unforeseen results.

The economy, in common with the natural world, is not static. Thus, bureaucrats cannot tamper with it without creating imbalances in the overall system, whether the system be economic or ecological. The results will be counterproductive, whether the state attempts to control the level of wages and prices or of skunks and salmon.