HOW MUCH IS A WETLAND WORTH?

by Whit Gibbons

November 9, 2014

Would you pay $3 to have an eastern narrow-mouthed toad for a pet? How about $20 for a barking treefrog? That’s how much these species cost in the commercial pet trade. Prices may vary depending on geographic location and current availability of a species, but these are the numbers that were used in a scientific paper that attempts to place a monetary value on natural wetlands.

The analysis of wetland value based on amphibian abundance and what people will pay for them was conducted by Brett DeGregorio and colleagues at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab in South Carolina. The paper, titled “Commercial Value of Amphibians Produced from an Isolated Wetland,” appeared in the prestigious scientific journal The American Midland Naturalist published by the University of Notre Dame. The study’s stated objective was “to use the commercial value of amphibians to estimate the value of a single isolated wetland based on the number of amphibians it supports and produces annually.” This is the first study to assign an economic value to a wetland based on the commercial value of the animals that inhabit it.

A couple of points need to be considered in evaluating how much an amphibian is worth. Frogs, toads and salamanders are no different from works of art, antique cars or old stamps: They are worth what someone is willing to pay if someone else is willing to sell. You might not pay a penny for a tiger salamander that you could call your own because you don’t want to own one. Nonetheless, the list price at some pet stores is $29.99. A second reason you might not choose to pay for a pet amphibian is that you are able to catch your own. For example, my grandson has caught countless narrow-mouthed toads, barking treefrogs and tiger salamanders and then released them. Why pay for something you can catch yourself?

The study had two primary steps. The first was to estimate how many amphibians were present in the wetland, not an easy task anywhere. More than 20 students, technicians, and faculty were involved in determining the abundance of the 17 kinds of amphibians that live in the 20-acre wetland. Over a one-year period, the wetland was circumscribed by a 4,000-foot fence of aluminum flashing. Bucket traps were buried at intervals on either side of the fence. The investigators involved in the project checked every bucket at least once a day to catch and record any amphibians or other animals that fell into them. Each individual animal was released on the opposite side of the fence, in the direction it was trying to go. During the year, a total of 392,605 amphibians were collected. Some were adult frogs, toads and salamanders traveling into the wetland to lay eggs; others were recently metamorphosed juveniles leaving the wetland to begin life on land.

The second step in the process was to determine how much a specimen of a particular species was worth on the open market based on price lists distributed by pet trade companies and biological supply houses. Based only on the values of the amphibians inhabiting the wetland, the economic value of the natural habitat was extraordinary. In a single year the monetary worth of amphibians was $3,605,848 based solely on their commercial value in the pet trade. The authors also calculated that the amphibian value of the 20 acres of wetland was more than 100 times higher than what the same land would have yielded had it been drained and converted to agriculture.

Key points of this study are that native wildlife can be used to place economic value on wetlands, many of which are no longer protected by environmental regulations, and that their worth greatly exceeds initial expectations. The authors do “not advocate amphibian harvest as an economic use for wetlands” nor the commercial sale of native amphibians. Nonetheless, the study underscores “the value, diversity and abundance of amphibians inhabiting these small, isolated and often unprotected wetlands” as virtual amphibian factories.

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