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Examining The Ethical Implications Of Killing Barred Owls

OPB | July 24, 2013 12:06 p.m. | Updated: Sept. 11, 2013 1:11 a.m.

It’s been hard to be a spotted owl for a long time. In the decades-long effort to bring spotted owls back from the edge of extinction caused by habitat loss, barred owls have become another threat to their smaller cousins. Now, in four areas in Washington, Oregon and California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife will be killing barred owls in an effort to protect spotted owls. 

Barred owls are neither native to Oregon or invasive species like, say, nutria or starlings. Instead, they fit a strange, in-between status as native to North America but very new to the West Coast — arriving in Washington in 1973. The barred and spotted owl are closely related, but barred owls are slightly bigger, much more aggressive and far less picky about both habitat and diet. Now, barred owls occupy all of the spotted owl territory. 

After four years of study (PDF), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife decided to begin an experimental cull. To look at the ethics of the plan, the agency brought in Bill Lynn, an ethicist and research scientist at the George Perkin Marsh Institute at Clark University in Massachusetts.

He says there is no simple solution to this problem. Killing barred owls has ethical problems, but so does not killing them and letting spotted owls be forced out.

Whether to cull, how to do it, what lethal ways are ethically best, and what happens to the owl carcasses were just some of the quandaries Lynn raised with the study’s barred owl stakeholder group, made up of conservationists, logging employees and government scientists. And the ethical algebra doesn’t end here. If the experiment is a success, does that justify expanding the cull and killing thousands more owls to save a smaller number of owls?

Do you believe it is justifiable to kill one animal to save another? What would tip your ethical scale for or against killing?

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