Conservation's Ethical Tradeoffs

By Keith Kloor
Feb 23, 2010 6:20 PMNov 20, 2019 4:47 AM


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It's not easy being a conservation biologist. You have to fight on multiple fronts just to maintain and preserve viable wildlife populations. Habitat fragmentation often poses the biggest threat to imperiled species. But there is one battle that the media has all but ignored--that between animal rights proponents and conservationists. So this post from wildlife biologist Michael Hutchins caught my attention, because his frustration is palpable, especially here:

I can think of no other issue that illustrates the deep incompatabilities between the values and goals of animal rights and conservation proponents than feral cats. As I have said previously, it is impossible to be an animal rights proponent and a conservationist simultaneously. Those who wish to bring these two increasingly disparate movements together will ultimately fail. Some ideas are better than others, and animal rights"“with its exclusive and reductionistic focus on individual animals"“cannot and will not come to grips with what it is going to take to conserve biodiversity in a human-dominated world.

I first became aware of this rift in the late 1990s, when I wrote a feature story about Colorado's troubled lynx reintroduction program for Science magazine. At the time, five of the animals imported from Canada and Alaska had starved to death in the San Juan mountains, shortly after they were released. One of the issues I focused on was whether Colorado still had suitable habitat for the transplanted lynx--specifically, whether there was enough snowshoe hares to support a breeding lynx population. Canada lynx are specialists and rely largely on the rabbits for food. I walked away from the article wondering if cultural attitudes perhaps trumped science in the case of the Colorado lynx reintroduction program. In other words, I wondered if Colorado's state biologists just really wanted to see the cats back in Colorado. (The species was eliminated from Colorado in 1973, after a hunter shot the last known lynx.) In today's world, there are compelling factors that work against the lynx repopulating the West and nearly all of them point to humans. That said, over the years I've also been impressed by the dedication of Colorado biologists--especially Tanya Shenk-- who have stuck with the program. Since 1999, over 200 lynx have been reintroduced into Colorado's high country. This article seems a pretty good snapshot of where the program stands today. And this piece spotlights the issue that I explored in my Science story. The bottom line: it'll be years before experts can say with any certainty if lynx have successfully re-established themselves in Colorado, much less the Western region. All this is by way of introduction to one of the most fascinating characters I have met in my reporting on environmental issues: Marc Bekoff. Professionally, he's an animal behaviorist, with distinguished research on carnivores. Until his retirement several years ago, Marc spent decades teaching at the University of Colorado, at Boulder. My thumbnail sketch doesn't do justice to his career, and of course doesn't speak to his dual role as a prominent animal rights advocate and outspoken critic of species restoration programs, such as the lynx reintroduction. I've kept in sporadic contact with Marc over the years; we've met twice, once in New York a decade ago (where he showed up in the middle of winter wearing sandals) and again last year in Colorado, when I was a Fellow at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism. Marc is one of the smartest people I know and a very articulate and thoughtful advocate for animal rights. So after I read what Hutchins wrote about the ongoing devastation to wildlife by feral cats, and how this issue encapsulates the irreconcilable differences between animal rights and conservation advocates, I emailed Marc to get his take. Here's what he wrote back:

While there is a problem I don't see this as the most significant one at all - maybe 'up there' but there are other issues for sure concerning native 'versus' non-native species, the fate of individuals in reintroduction programs - should individual wolves die for the good of their species/other wolves - should hamsters/black-tailed prairie dogs be fed to black-footed ferrets so the ferrets can practice predation to increase the ferret's chance of survival...

I take this to mean that Marc is referring to other issues that are just as divisive to the relationship between animal rights proponents and conservationsts. And his answer got me wishing there was more attention paid to these issues by the press. I have to think that is something that both Hutchins and Bekoff would agree on.

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