The debate about whether to kill one species to save another isn’t new, but thankfully the conversation is shifting. Rather than targeting individuals of a certain species, can we find an approach that values the lives of all wild animals?
In a recent article examining the debate titled “There Will Be Blood” featured in the magazine Conservation, Warren Cornwall say that: “The pressure to reach for a gun to help save one animal from another is stronger than ever. And it has triggered a conservation problem from hell.”
Citing recent examples from an ill-conceived plan to poison thousands of ravens in Idaho to save sage grouse, sea lions being killed at the Bonneville Dam for eating endangered salmon, and yet another plan to kill 16,000 double-crested cormorants for eating those same salmon, the death toll continues to rise and there’s no end in sight to the killing.
Then there are the killings that continue to be quietly sanctioned by the government. Earlier this year Wildlife Services was called out for shooting, poisoning and trapping a staggering four million wild animals in a single year with no explanation or accountability for its actions.
Cornwall adds to the debate by focusing on the controversial case over whether or not to kill barred owls to save northern spotted owls in the Northwest. Northern spotted owls have lived in old growth forests for hundreds of years, but the trees that have provided their habitat also became a primary source of wood for logging. Disputes between the government, environmentalists and the timber industry over land use and protecting these owls have been going on for decades. The owls weren’t listed as threatened until 1990 after years of lawsuits and negotiations.
Concerns about their continued disappearance led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose an experiment last year that would involve killing 3,603 barred owls in Washington, Oregon and Northern California over the next six years to see if it will help the northern spotted owl, but the plan didn’t sit well with a lot of people and it still doesn’t. More than 40,000 people signed the Care2 petition asking the agency to abandon its plan.
The bigger problem is that even if the proposed experiment appears to help northern spotted owls, there’s no end for it in sight. Cornwall writes:
Even if we manage to negotiate the moral thicket of killing one owl to save another―and emerge at the other end with gun at the ready―we run headlong into a practical question: What’s the exit strategy? Can we kill 10,000 barred owls every year forever?
He notes that’s the number some experts believe it will take to help spotted owls. Some believe as the forests continue to recover, the killing may eventually stop, but others worry that recovery will bring more barred owls and end up “creating a never-ending killing operation.”
Earlier this year, Friends of Animals and Predator Defense, refiled a lawsuit in Oregon to save the barred owls, arguing the plan violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
While that plays out, other species still continue to be targeted and killed as a result of our shoot-first mentality. Fortunately, going forward, the emerging field of “compassionate conservation” is continuing to gain traction. Marc Bekoff, a University of Colorado professor emeritus and animal behavior expert, explains the guiding principle of this field is ‘First do no harm’ and that every individual animal matters.
As more and more species become imperiled, conservationists and wildlife advocates fear the problem is just going to get worse. While there aren’t any easy answers, hopefully we can take a more reasonable approach than simply looking at numbers and continuing to murder our way out of problems that are mostly a result of our own actions.
Separately, Bekoff says:
What animals feel matters to them and it must matter to us. The lives of individual animals must be taken very seriously and researchers must make this a priority (see also). We are responsible for who lives and who dies. We can do anything we want but this power does not give us the license to ruin a spectacularly beautiful planet, its wondrous webs of nature, and its magnificent nonhuman residents.
Compassionate conservation is a wonderful “meeting place” — a much-needed paradigm shift and social movement — for everyone concerned with protecting all animals. When we ignore nature we not only harm other animals but we do so at our own peril.