The Ethics of Killing Large Carnivores

To evolve our relationship with large carnivores and other wild animals in North America we could start by placing greater emphasis on examining the ethics and morality of the very concept of hunting for sport and entertainment.
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The killing of large carnivores in North America by means of trophy hunting, whether for "sport" or "management," has been and continues to be a source of noteworthy and unrelenting controversy.

Interestingly, most of the furor appears to have little to do with the conventional battlefield of left or right ideology as the intensity of emotion attached to top predators like bears, wolves, cougars and coyotes often transcends the simplistic bifurcated politics that can mark such disputes.

Both sides appear to be stuck in a continual expert-driven argument in which each camp claims that science supports their respective positions. Perhaps it is time that the debate over the trophy hunting of large carnivores in North America was also conducted within the context of ethical considerations, as the present conflict will likely never transcend the inflexible stances that are so deeply entrenched.

In his paper, Environmental ethics and trophy hunting, Dr. Alastair Gunn states that "Nowhere in the (scientific) literature, so far as I am aware, is hunting for fun, for the enjoyment of killing, or for the acquisition of trophies defended."

For instance, many who are outspoken advocates of grizzly hunting in British Columbia do not recognize, or self-servingly choose not to recognize, that it is a moral matter. As such, they feign that hunting grizzlies is amoral when, in fact, it is not; perhaps, they are incapable of doing the moral calculus, pretending that the trivial value of trophy hunting grizzlies somehow outweighs the much greater harm done to the bears.

In Ethics and the Environment, Dr. Dale Jamieson writes of the problematic nature of deciding to "choose amoralism and opt out of morality. The very ties that bind us to a society entangle us in a morality. Morality is ubiquitous; amoralists are rare."

The compulsion to kill these intelligent, powerful and beautiful animals in order to "bag a trophy," as opposed to simply observing and fully experiencing an archetypal encounter of two inextricably linked species, is something poll after poll on the grizzly hunt suggests the average British Columbian cannot fathom.

As Doug and Andrea Peacock have written in The Essential Grizzly: "The concurrent colonization of North America by brown bears and humans is a remarkable story. Both men and grizzlies...lived together for thousands of years, and perhaps traveled the same route south to the continental United States. Genetic evidence indicates a single invasion for both grizzlies and humans..."

Grizzly bears and other large carnivores are primarily shot and killed for strictly gratuitous reasons; they are targeted by trophy hunters and guide outfitters for entertainment, sport or profit, not for food or subsistence, with approval by government authorities who sanction this activity as a legitimate "management tool."

After spending millions of dollars recovering gray wolves in the Northern Rockies of the lower 48 states, Idaho and Montana opened a trophy hunting season almost immediately after wolves were de-listed from protections under the Endangered Species Act in the fall of 2009. After Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter publicly stated he wants to kill more than 80 percent of the state's wolves, the state set an initial quota of approximately 250 wolves to be legally trophy hunted out of an estimated population of 1,000. The ensuing intense controversy and suite of lawsuits aimed at stopping the trophy hunts and restoring federal protections for the species highlight the ethical and moral divide that lies at the center of large carnivore recovery and conservation in North America.

In addition to trophy hunts, wolves and coyotes are among the species targeted in predator "derbies," "tournaments," and "contests" where prizes are awarded for the most and largest carnivores killed. Liberal hunting laws allow such carnage to occur and few agencies or politicians are willing to speak to the ethics- or lack thereof- in such wanton abuse of wildlife. After mounting pressure from wildlife advocates against coyote "tournaments" in Maine, Governor John Baldacci recently declared the killing contests "inhumane" and "unacceptable" yet contest hunts continue because the laws allow them.

Drs. Michael Nelson and Kelly Millenbah have stated in their recent paper, The Ethics of Hunting, that "To the degree the wildlife community begins to take philosophy and ethics more seriously, both as a realm of expertise that can be acquired and as a critical dimension of wildlife conservation, many elements of wildlife conservation and management would look different."

Imagine a scenario in which wildlife managers, and the elected politicians they must answer to, were required to incorporate ethical considerations into the decision making process for wildlife management. The debate over hunting carnivores would no longer be limited to metrics such as population estimates, kill quotas, harvestable surpluses and other strictly mechanistic arguments which lend themselves to endless stalemates.

According to Raincoast Conservation Foundation senior scientist, Project Coyote science advisor, and former member of the BC government's grizzly bear scientific panel Dr. Paul Paquet, the fact that we can hunt large carnivores does not mean that we ought to hunt them. Further, while science provides information, it does not give us permission to do things. In other words, the aforementioned statistics that have been generated ostensibly to inform, but in actual practice to justify, the trophy hunting of large carnivores do not contain an intrinsic approval to do so.

Echoing Garrett Hardin, Paquet points out that wildlife managers and conservation scientists can offer no technical solutions that will change human values or ideas of morality. Paquet also contends, like Aldo Leopold, that we can advocate for a "land ethic" that embraces biodiversity and the ecological functions and processes that link species with their environment. In Leopold's own words, which have tangible links to the welfare of individuals and populations:

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land- and it affirms the right of all to continued existence. The extension of ethics to land and to the animals and plants which is an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

Unfortunately, jurisdictions in both Canada and the United States are saddled with a policy framework for wildlife conservation that is carried out within an artificial construct in which ethical considerations simply do not exist and management is driven largely by values, attitudes and deeply held beliefs that are ensconced in the anachronistic North American Wildlife Management Model that dates back to the early 1900's. This narrow approach is primarily rooted in an agricultural mindset, as opposed to an ecological one.

Large carnivores pose a threat not so much to human "life and property," but rather to human self-conceptualization. They challenge our imagined "rightful place" in the world, primarily our hegemony over nature and its non-human inhabitants. It is this hegemonic mindset that blocks us from extending ethical considerations to large carnivores and other wildlife, for instance, both in the way we govern our society's interactions with such animals and in how we wield power over them given our technologically-based supremacy (e.g., high-powered hunting rifles, jet boats, helicopters, etc.).

To evolve our relationship with large carnivores and other wild animals in North America we could start by placing greater emphasis on examining the ethics and morality of the very concept of hunting for sport and entertainment, as opposed to elevating trivial values like trophy hunting summit or apex predators above the welfare of the animals themselves.

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