National Geographic and the Ethics of Barred Owl Management

Yesterday, National Geographic published a video and article on the ethics of managing barred owls, Shooting Owls to Save Other Owls. Written and produced by acclaimed environmental journalist Isabelle Groc,the story does the best job to date of explaining the difficult moral decisions facing the Barred Owl Stakeholder Group and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Recall that the endangered northern spotted owl is being driven to extinction primarily by habitat loss first, then competition from barred owls. Barred owls are a related eastern species that has recently migrated into the Pacific Northwest. Groc’s story captures three distance approaches to the debate over a field experiment that kills barred owls to benefit spotted owls.

Groc is especially attuned to various dimensions of the moral debates. The animal rights position believes any killing of owls is morally wrong as it violates the intrinsic value of individual animal lives. The conservationist position prioritizes ecological systems and biodiversity over the lives of animals, whether as individuals or as a population of non-native wildlife. The animal protection view holds that both individual lives and ecological wholes are important. Both animal rights and conservation bring important insights to the table, and sometimes circumstances mean we must make hard choices.

There are technical ethics terms for these position. Those focusing on individual animal lives are biocentrists, those on ecological wholes are ecocentrists, and those on both individuals and wholes are geocentrists. Each of these viewpoints has a distinct view on where we find intrinsic value — in individuals, in groups, in both. And there are fascinating connections between these positions in moral theory, and related distinctions in political theory — individualist (e.g. libertarians, liberals), collectivists (e.g., fascists, communists), and communitarians (e.g., socialists, social democrats).

Indeed, in almost any policy debate over nature and society, you will find latent or manifest assumptions about who has moral value, whether individuals or groups should be prioritized one over the other, or how to best balance individual and social, private and public, human and non-human interests.

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