That thing where we kill to promote life

Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting a different result. There's no shortage of examples of this insanity in contemporary western society; growth-based economics comes to mind, as does electing republicans to office. Or old white men in general (I digress). One example of this kind of insanity that gets me particularly fired up is this apparently unshakable inclination we have as a culture towards killing as a solution to all of our environmental problems. 

We use pesticides to kill unwanted bugs; herbicides to kill unwanted plants; biological controls to kill invasive species; bullets to kill unwanted wolves and coyotes. In each case we do these things for some short-term benefit--to protect corn yields or livestock, for example--but we rarely ask whether these are long-term, sustainable solutions. I truly believe that if there were a way to kill climate change, the political battle would have ended before it had even begun.

 Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

When we try to control nature in this way, we are not promoting life but working against it, because life is not just some random assemblage of creatures on the landscape to which we can add and remove as we see fit. Life is a system, with in-built and co-evolved checks and balances that drive whether species can coexist sustainably. Pesticides in agriculture work against life; natural systems farming, by comparison, aims to build pest control into the cropping ecosystem.

A contemporary example of our tendency to work against life, and incidentally why I'm writing this post, is unfolding in British Columbia. BC's Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations has decided it will kill 200 grey wolves in an effort to save the severely imperiled Selkirk Caribou herd, of which only 18 animals are known to remain. Wolves in the region, unsurprisingly, predate on caribou and particularly caribou calves. The idea is that by temporarily depleting the wolves, the caribou will have a chance to recover. 

There are two bases on which we can evaluate this idea, first in terms of its ecological soundness and also in terms of its morality. Ecologically, one sticky wicket with wolf culling is that no two experts agree on whether it works, and largely because it is not a simple yes or no question. Wolf culls are indeed believed to help expedite caribou recovery, though other approaches are more effective in the long run. In fact, lethal wildlife control in general and with wolves in specific is widely known to be ineffective over the long term as a restoration ecology measure. In the case of the Selkirk herd, the caribou populations require habitat, but their situation is thought to be so dire that any land use reforms that address habitat fragmentation will not happen fast enough to stave off extinction. However, if you inflate caribou populations by temporarily reducing predation, all you really do in the long-run is create an opportunity for local wolf populations to grow (you are increasing their food source), which means you have to keep killing wolves for the caribou recovery to continue. Wolf populations are also resilient to culling (though they do suffer great stress when hunted). What's more, unless you address the root causes of the caribou population decline--habitat fragmentation--you are simply setting the caribou up for failure, or for a political situation where landowners see the wolf culls as a better permanent solution than changing how people use land. 

Firstly, we cannot ignore that it is not the wolves’ fault that the Selkirk herd is depleted. That is the result of human development.

Wolf culls are also morally unjustifiable. Firstly, we cannot ignore the fact that it is not the wolves' fault that the Selkirk herd is so depleted in the first place. Even the BC government acknowledges that this is the result of extensive human development, which has fragmented caribou habitat in the region. Is it moral to now place the cost of our collective "oops" on the local wolf populations? No doubt if (when?) the Selkirk herd goes extinct it will be a terrible thing, but it is logically fallacious to cast this as some sort of "wicked problem", a lose-lose scenario where the needs of the few (the caribou) outweigh the needs of the many (the wolves). 

Killing is a crude tool for orchestrating conservation theater

The argument is fallacious because the philosophical underpinning of conserving and restoring endangered species is the notion that they have intrinsic value. When we ascribe intrinsic value to species we are asserting that they have moral standing: that each life has inherent value and as such their lives are non-tradable. In other words, we must consider each individual animal's needs and interests in any decisions we make about them, just as we would for people. Otherwise we're not conserving the species for their sake but keeping a zoo for ours.

To be clear, I am not arguing against hunting, whether of wolves or caribou or any other species. Hunting and killing are not the same morally or ecologically. Predation is an important force in ecosystem stability and biodiversity. Killing, by comparison, is simply a crude tool for orchestrating conservation theater. 

Choosing to not cull wolves is not inaction.

Choosing to not cull wolves is not inaction. Rather, it is a decision to stop playing a god, to reject a philosophy toward nature that has caused the caribou's problems in the first place. The Selkirk herd may very likely not survive, and that is squarely on us. We can kill a few wolves to try to make ourselves feel better about it, or to convince ourselves that we have changed, but we will not have learned or changed in the process. Alternatively, we can do our best to find non-lethal ways to improve the herd's chances, as slim as they are, and also come clean with ourselves about the meaning of it all. If we do our work to reconnect habitats and allow the ecosystems and species therein to thrive, the caribou will come back when they are ready, or, rather, when we are ready for them.