How Far Should We Go to Protect a Species?


When this environmental ethicist learned that biologists were protecting one species of owl by killing a competing species, I wondered where we draw the line.

Beneath shaded columns of Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, one charismatic owl species is driving another to extinction. Barred owls (Strix varia), their chests mottled with streaks of brown, are too tough for their cousin, the smaller, chestnut-speckled Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). In the competition for nesting sites, the spotteds lose to their relative, the barred owls, who arrived recently from the Eastern United States. Environmentalists who spent decades trying to protect old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest for the spotted owls now have a new reason to worry. Spotted owls, in the words of one biologist, are ‘circling the drain.’ 

The tragedy unfolding for the northern spotted owl brings into stark relief an increasingly common dilemma. How far should biologists go to help a struggling species survive? 

It turns out that northern spotted owls can easily be saved. All it takes is a cadre of biologists patrolling the forest with twelve-gauge shotguns. Shooting barred owls is an effective way to keep spotted owls alive.  I met a biologist who put this strategy into practice in an experiment run by the U.S. Geological Survey. For five years, she traipsed around Washington’s Okanagee-Wenatchee forest at night, playing a recording of barred owl calls. When barred owls came to investigate, she shot them. By the time the experiment was over, she had shot more than three hundred and fifty barred owls. 

It may be effective, but it’s a shocking approach to conservation. There is something ethically dubious about killing one owl to save another.

I have spent twenty years teaching environmental ethics at the University of Montana. Environmental ethicists investigate the rights and wrongs of how humans interact with their surroundings. “Surroundings” can mean the city, a wilderness, a farm, or any environment humans inhabit. Humans may share their surroundings with owls, oceans,  prairie dogs, and forests. Environmental ethicists don’t tell people what to do; they try to provide clarity on dilemmas like this one with the two owl species.

The owl situation illustrates a clash between the importance of a species and the importance of individuals. It would be nice for Strix occidentalis caurina to survive. But it seems harsh for hundreds of individual Strix varia to die, even if those individual deaths pose no threat to the barred owl species as a whole. There’s suffering involved, and we know suffering is bad. Seen through this lens, it boils down to how the value of one species stacks up against the suffering of individuals from a different one.

There is another lens to consider, too. In an ideal world, wildlife should remain wild. A species that depends on biologists wandering around forests with shotguns has lost something essential to its wildness. Such dependence is called “conservation-reliance,” and it’s something wildlife enthusiasts generally hope to avoid. The natural world becomes more like a zoo if we spend our time shooting owls, or air-dropping food to starving polar bears, or trapping fragile California condors for captive breeding. Some of what we are trying to save — namely nature’s independence and resilience — has already been lost.

a humpback whale leaps out of the water
When the world stopped killing humpback whales in the 1960s, the whales started to recover immediately. — Photo by Heidi Pearson: NMFS Permit #14122

The increasing number of conservation-reliant species shows how the world is changing. Change often stems from the pressure for development demanded by growing human populations and their growing consumption. It comes from the reckless pollution of soils and waterways with synthetic chemicals. It comes from the billions of tons of greenhouse gasses our species is emitting into the atmosphere. Taken together, these impacts make it harder to be hands-off with wildlife. If we have gotten them into a pickle, we should probably try to get them out.

We may not have figured out yet what to do about the owl dilemma, but the good news is that wildlife can be remarkably resilient. When the world stopped killing humpback whales in the nineteen-sixties, the whales started to recover immediately. The global population of humpback whales today is nearly 95% of what it was before commercial whaling. Northern elephant seals were hunted until there were fewer than a hundred of them left. Now there are well over 150,000. Stories of resilience are more common than you think. I wrote about some of these amazing recoveries in my recent book, Tenacious Beasts.

When a native species comes back strong, the benefits shower down. Humpback whales not only look great from the deck of a tour boat (bringing millions of dollars into small town economies); they also do good things for the ecosystem. Whales spread nutrients around the world’s oceans by eating in one place and pooping in another. The nitrogen and phosphorus they emit stimulates phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton are the basis of the marine food chain, and they also absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, doing the world a favor in the face of climate change. Recovering populations of sea otters do the same: They help carbon-sucking kelp forests to regrow by preying on the urchins that mow them down. Whales and sea otters, you might say, are valuable climate partners. That partnership is a new environmental ethic for the climate change era.

Taking time to consider why we should — or shouldn’t — have wildlife around can turn anyone into a budding environmental ethicist. Here are my recommendations for taking a step in that direction: 

  1. Think hard about why you have ever cared about an animal, whether that’s your dog, a pet goldfish, or a songbird at your window.
  2. Become informed about how the lives of wild animals keep the natural systems around you healthy. 
  3. Learn the personalities of animals from different species. How do they behave? What intelligence do they show? What do their social and family lives look like?
  4. Remember that the top three things wild animals need to flourish are habitat, habitat, and habitat.

Now, go out there and help create a little more space for wild creatures to live their lives. This might mean putting a plant on your window ledge for the benefit of pollinators. It could involve letting a little patch in the yard go wild to create habitat for birds and small mammals. Perhaps you can volunteer on a weekend to restore a nearby creek or campaign for some open space in the next local election.

Wild creatures have the skills to make the most of the opportunities we offer them. Evolution set things up so that animals want to live. We just have to want them to live, too.

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Christopher Preston
Christopher Preston
Christopher J. Preston is an English-born writer and philosophy professor based in Missoula, MT. He has written on topics related to wildlife, environment, climate, and technology for venues that include The Atlantic, Orion, Smithsonian, Discover, the BBC, and the Wall Street Journal. His new book, Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think About Animals investigates a dozen species back from the brink of extinction. He meets the scientists, indigenous leaders, and activists responsible for their return and uncovers what these tenacious wild animals can teach. In early 2023, he won an annual award from the International Society for Environmental Ethics for his work as a public philosopher.
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