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Friday, April 22, 2016

A Time to Kill

If I were to name my favorite birds, northern ravens would definitely have to be on the short list.  At first glimpse, they may not be much to look at - just a big, black bird.  They have other attributes than appearance going for them, however.  Their intelligence is legendary, with ravens (and their kin, the crows, jays, and magpies) rivaling parrots as the most intelligent of birds.  Their use of tools, of social cooperation, and of vocalization is extraordinary.  They are superbly adaptable, occupying a range that covers virtually every habitat of the Northern Hemisphere.  They are featured prominently in legend and lore, from Norse and Native American folklore to Poe's most famous poem.  Truly magnificent birds.

Which is why it saddens me so much that sometimes, it becomes necessary to kill them.

There are many reasons why a person may choose to become involved in conservation, many of them boiling down to a love of animals or the natural world.  A desire to kill animals usually isn't high on the list.  Conservation is a balancing act, however; every change to an environment has consequences.  If you want one species to thrive, sometimes it means that it must be at the expense of another.  Sometimes lethally so.

Predator control has been around for as long as humans have managed wildlife.  The idea is that by getting rid of predators, such as wolves and pumas, we make bigger herds of deer, moose, and other animals that humans like to hunt.  No less a conservationist than Aldo Leopold, in his youth, shot up a pack of (now critically endangered) Mexican gray wolves in the belief that fewer wolves would mean more deer, which in turn would equal a hunter's paradise.

In the case of the ravens, it's a question of adaptability... and appetite.  The secret to the raven's success is its ability to find food everywhere... any kind of food.  Sometimes, that food is the eggs (or young) of other, much more endangered species, such as tortoises, eiders, California condors, and sage grouses.  That's lead to culls of ravens in some places to reduce predation pressure on these species.  Ravens, as it so happens, are highly charismatic animals, much more so than, say, Steller's eiders, and have a much broader fan base.  That leads to protests and the inevitable question - how can conservationists advocate killing animals?

"Conservation culling" can take many forms.  It's culling of invasive species, such as brown tree snakes in Guam or, closer to home, mute swans on the Chesapeake.  Sometimes it means implementing contraception of wild animals to prevent their overbreeding.  Sometimes too many of a common native species are threatening to crowd out an endangered native species, and culling is implemented to level the field. Sometimes it's even the culling of endangered species that threaten to overpopulate their small, cramped protected reserves.  Such was almost the fate of the Swaziland African elephants that were recently shipped to US zoos.  The case of the Swaziland elephants, it was reasoned that elephants are endangered, but black rhinos are more endangered.  Too many elephants, the Swazis deemed, were resulting in too few rhinos, the result of the elephants eating the rhinos out of house and home.

Zoos and aquariums sometimes engage in their own conservation culling.  An extreme case would be the incident that unfolded in Denmark back in 2014, where Marius the giraffe was culled to free up space for other animals.  A much simpler, less controversial method would be choosing not to incubate the eggs of a bird that your zoo doesn't particularly wish to breed.

And none of this is even touching that red hot controversy of trophy hunting for conservation, such as when a Texas hunter was able to purchase the rights to kill a black rhinoceros, the proceeds of which would go to fund rhino conservation.  That got ugly really fast...

"Killing for conservation" is always going to be fraught with controversy.  There are endless questions that have to be asked.  Are we sure what we are doing is really in the interests of the ecosystem, and not just an excuse to do what we want while wrapped up in an ecodefense?  How do we weigh the difference between conservation and animal rights?  Are some animals worth more than others?  Who gets to make these decisions, and who are they accountable to?  Most of all, what gives us the right?

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