In the Washington Post today, an ominous headline for endangered species: "The True Cost of Protection?"

Dust off your sense of outrage, fellow taxpaying Americans, because as the article informs us, protecting endangered species cost $1.4 billion in 2004. So magnificent is that figure that the writer sneeringly suggests that king salmon are so called because recovering them cost the princely sum of $160 million in ’04. By the tenor of the piece we are supposed to feel that spending $5 million on gray wolves is magnanimous, while spending $11,000 on a rare species of beetle is the height of absurdity.

What’s truly outrageous is the intimation that somehow the species themselves are to blame for their costly predicament. Like lazy welfare queens, these imperiled animals should pony up. Never mind that wild Columbia River king salmon are perhaps 1 percent of historical abundance because a welter of industries were given free rein to destroy them. Clearcuts, dams, voracious fisheries, nuclear plants, pesticides… the list of culprits is long and it is to them that the $160 million bill should be assessed. The cost is not of "protection" as the writer asserts, it is instead the cost of heedlessly trampling ecosystems.

It’s apropos that the headline editor added a question mark because, in truth, none of the dollar figures cited in the article actually amount to the "true cost" of protection. Like a blinkered accountant tallying only expenses but not revenues, the article utterly fails to mention any of the monetary benefits of species recovery. (And I won’t even mention the inestimable non-monetary ones). Study the "costs" of protection for a moment and you’ll see that the figures just don’t add.

In the Yellowstone region, University of Montana economists have estimated that gray wolves have generated $23 million dollars in tourism to gateway towns. Add to that the many millions of dollars in central Idaho and the Upper Midwest, where gray wolves are also rebounding, and it turns out that wolves not only pay for themselves, they pick up the tab for those good-for-nothing salamanders, and still return a hefty dividend to taxpayers.

In Idaho, fully functioning sport salmon fisheries have been valued as high as $544 million per year. Though that estimate is disputed, it’s for just one year for one of the several states where that $160 million was spent in 2004 to assist king salmon.

I could go on and on. The point is, the "true cost" of endangered species protection is much lower than the greenbacks that the US Fish & Wildlife Service lays out. It’s even possible that the investment is actually a net benefit for the economy, if one bothers to factor in the revenues of wildlife-based tourism, ecosystem services, and sport (and commercial) fisheries. And that’s just the dollars and cents, which is a lamentably poor way to value our natural heritage.

Even if they never do hold steady jobs and pay back what they rightfully owe us taxpayers, protecting and restoring endangered species is worth the price. When I consider the meaning of those species, their uniqueness in geography and history and their symbolism of wildness, $1.6 billion just doesn’t seem like very much money to me. Especially when I remember that it’s spent on species across the entire country—from Florida manatees to Northwest salmon.

Where I live, in Seattle, officials are just about to plunk down $3.5 billion in tax dollars to build a 2 mile long tunnel. Enough said.