On May 4, the blubbery carcasses of six sea lions were discovered inside a trap at Bonneville Dam in Oregon. Animal rights advocates suspected they'd been murdered as part of a long-standing dispute over the complicated ethics of wildlife management.
It began in the late 1990s, when hungry sea lions from the coast started traveling 145 miles up the Columbia River and decimating a local population of endangered Chinook salmon. Fearful that the fish would go extinct, an unlikely alliance formed between commercial fishermen and conservationists. They pressured local wildlife managers to take action, and in March, the federal government granted permission to kill or transplant up to 85 California sea lions per year. But the Humane Society opposed the plan and filed a series of injunctions in district and federal courts to block it. So when sea lion bodies showed up earlier this month, the animal lovers wondered if someone had ordered a hit.
The question of how to balance the lives of a few pinnipeds against the continuing existence of an entire species reflects an important question: At what point do the rights of an individual animal trump the welfare of an entire ecosystem? Should we murder a few sea lions to save a whole bunch of salmon? For a fish-friendly conservation group like the Wild Salmon Center, support for the cull seems like a no-brainer. But what about broader-based organizations like the Sierra Club? Do the folks who respond to their polar bear cub campaigns understand that species preservation can be cruel—and that saving the environment has little to do with animal rights?
The dream of conservation is to restore the natural world to a time before forests were felled, rivers were poisoned, and species were exterminated. American naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote that "the land is one organism," implying that Mother Earth has a dignity all her own. But to preserve these ecosystems, conservationists must trample the rights of individual animals. An avid hunter, Leopold himself saw no conflict between killing and conservation. Today, wildlife managers prop up species in decline while mandating population control among those that have become too successful. Totalitarian measures that would be shunned in human society—hazing, mass sterilization, forced relocation, and sometimes genocide—are all part of the conservationist's toolbox. I consider myself green-minded, but I can't accept the idea that we should sacrifice compassion to save every single species on the planet.
First off, the public—and the legal system—are not so quick to dismiss animal rights. Last year, James Stevenson, founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, faced up to two years of jail time on charges of animal cruelty after shooting a cat that he believed was killing endangered piping plovers. Indeed, according to the National Audubon Society, feral cats kill hundreds of millions of native birds and small animals in the United States each year and are second only to the loss of wilderness in causing species extinctions. Does that mean the cat's painful death was worth less than its incremental contribution to the loss of bird species? Apparently flummoxed by this question of environmental ethics, the jury deadlocked—and prosecutors have decided not to retry the case.
The picture is just as fuzzy when it comes to those who try to prevent the murder of animals. In 2002, the National Park Service bombed California's Anacapa Island with a rodent-killing poison to wipe out nonnative black rats, which were scarfing down the eggs of local seabirds. Outraged by this indiscriminate killing, activist Rob Puddicombe and a companion traveled to the island to administer an antidote to the poison. They were arrested and charged with "feeding wildlife" and "interfering with a federal function." Puddicombe was cleared in 2003, but his companion pleaded guilty and was fined $200. (Their efforts didn't pay off: The rats were exterminated.)