From the wilderness of British Columbia comes an innovative conservation tactic about which I am strongly … ambivalent. Raincoast Conservation Foundation is acquiring the guide-outfitting hunting rights to five areas along the central BC coast, a remote area of vast wilderness home to the rare "spirit bear," among other species. The angle here is probably obvious: Raincoast bought the rights in order to put a stop to hunting.

Raincoast and other conservation groups have a strong interest — one I share — in protecting biodiversity and relatively pristine wild places. So what’s my beef? It’s a two-parter.

First, I’m not sure that hunting is bad for the species being hunted. Second, I’m not sure the price — Can $1.35 million plus annual licensing fees — is the best conservation use of the money.

Now on one level, hunting is obviously bad for a species because it involves, well, killing it. But the formula isn’t really so simple. For at least two reasons, hunting can actually be beneficial. First, hunters often form powerful constituencies supporting conservation. Ducks Unlimited, a powerful voice for wetlands protection, is probably the best-known example, but it’s worth remembering that National Wildlife Federation also first took root in the hook and bullet crowd. Just as hikers often become advocates for trails, hunters and fishermen often become advocates for protecting their recreation. In the Northwest, for instance, you can find plenty of farmers who don’t care much for salmon regulations, but you can’t find a single steelhead fisherman who doesn’t get animated about water quality.

Second, as globe-trotting naturalist David Quammen argues in his recent book Monster of God, hunting can actually be the lifeline that rescues species from the brink of oblivion. In the Russian far east, India, Australia, and Romania, Quammen finds compelling evidence that hunting of the most objectionable sort — big game trophy hunting of endangered species by well-heeled foreigners — can spell the difference between life and death.

The reason is depressingly venal: A lot of money gets spent to bag a saltwater croc or a Siberian tiger. When done right, some of the money gets ploughed back into habitat conservation. But by far the biggest benefit, according to Quammen, is that locals see a direct, tangible (read: cash money) benefit for conserving that species. And without local protection, imperiled species are all too often victimized by poaching or habitat destruction. To localize Quammen’s reasoning, the perpetual specter of logging in coastal BC is a far more pernicious threat than hunting.

So hunting, which creates a conservation constituency and provides a financial incentive, is not unequivocally bad for biodiversity. Indeed, I suspect that on balance it’s a boon. But hunting also doesn’t sit well with many environmentalists who are, for perfectly legitimate reasons, ethically opposed to gratuitously killing animals. And I must admit, I have a hard time keeping my blood pressure down when I think about certain kinds of hunting, especially of big predators like grizzlies, cougars, and wolves. When I think that those emblems of wildness may wind up as adornments of faux masculinity in a Texas drawing room, I get positively pissed off. But still, that doesn’t mean hunting is a bad deal for biodiversity.

Raincoast and other conservation groups argue that ecotourism can supplant hunting. Ecotourism, they argue, can infuse the region with cash and create a constituency just as hunting is alleged to do. Perhaps it can. Indeed, recent studies in the U.S. show that Americans spend more money watching wildlife than fishing or hunting for it. But ecotourism, despite its green appellation, can also carry tremendous environmental consequences — everything from carbon emitted by people traveling to remote locations to habitat-destroying development to keep pace with the hoped-for crowds. Moreover, I don’t see why BC can’t reap the benefits of both ecotourism and sustainable limited-tag hunting. So while ecotourism confers many benefits, I don’t see why hunting can’t add more.

Finally then, there’s the question of whether $1.35 million plus annual fees is worth the benefit. Owning up to opportunity costs can be a painful choice when it comes to protecting places and animals that we love, but it’s even more painful for the wilderness when we choose poorly. The model Raincoast is using — buying a license and holding it for conservation — is a good one. It’s been done with increasing success with water rights (keeping water in streams for fish), grazing rights (keeping livestock off fragile public lands that need breathing room to recover), and development rights (buying easements on farms, for instance, to prevent them from subdividing).

Hunting rights have been purchased before too, though never on this scale. But unlike rights for water, grazing, timber, minerals, or development, the biodiversity threats of hunting rights are far less clear. I would like to know what else might have been accomplished with that money. How many acres of land could have been protected from impending habitat-destroying development? How much logging could Raincoast have prevented with that money? And how much logged-over land could have been restored?

The conservation world needs a steely-eyed list that prioritizes the ecosystems and species most imperiled. (More on that list tomorrow.) And then it needs an even more steely-eyed accounting of the costs of protection. What are the best buys? What are the investments that are most stable, most leveraged, most likely to reap benefits in the future? As far as I know, that accounting has never been done, but I have a strong suspicion that hunting rights would pencil out as a rather bad buy.