Being a Good Neighbor Versus Playing God: Conservation, Spotted Owls, and You

Listen, I know that my last blog post was also about the intersection between the scientific and the social in environmental studies, but it’s not my fault that its such an incredible field. And you know things are about to get spicy when you type in the name of a threatened species of owl and Google autocompletes with “controversy.” So I am very excited. 

Not to be that guy who uses the word layman, but I feel that the layman assumes that conservation happens because it should; we should save the animals, always. Unfortunately, it is much more complicated than that. Let’s say that there are an endemic species of mice in a field that are slowly decreasing in population. The only identifiable reason is that a species of snakes are eating them. They will surely go extinct if nothing is done. So you should kill the snakes? No! They live there too! They just gotta eat! What if you added a different species of mice so the snakes wouldn’t eat the threatened mice? And what, wreak havoc on the population distribution of the entire food triangle? Fools. Not to mention the nearby rural village depends highly on the money brought in by people coming to see these unique mice and buy tee-shirts and eat in diners and stay at motels, so the disappearance of those mice could destroy the town. This brings me to the northern spotted owl. 

While the hypothetical mice situation falls close to the predicament of the spotted owl, I use the analogy for simplification, as the situation is more complicated than that, as always. Basically, the northern spotted owl was threatened by habitat loss by logging an encroachment by the barred owl. When logging ended, populations continued to decrease; so in an effort for conservation, a plan was proposed to remove a portion of barred owls to give the spotted owl some room. This did not go over well. 

The contenders in question

Here is an unfinished list of questions this predicament brings to mind, in no particular order, because I have ADD: 

  • Assuming the fact that humans have had such a broad and incalculable effect on the planet and everything on it, what does the word “nature” really mean? 
  • Assuming nature includes humans and their activities, what would it mean to “let nature take its course?”
  • Do humans have a responsibility to try to direct nature in a way that we see is “right” or “best?” If so, what would that entail?
  • If humans do not change their course in destroying the planet at a breakneck pace, will nature cease to exist or will nature entail majorly roaches and rats, being all that’s left? 
  • Should conservation efforts only be focused on organisms that humans benefit from or that we enjoy?  Species go extinct a lot, why is the spotted owl any different? We made this world, after all.

I find all of this fascinating and infinitely frustrating because I, for once, do not have a solid opinion on this, as I feel like there are too many questions for me to provide an answer. I feel like we need to think about so much about who we are and what we’ve done and what nature is before we can move forward with any confidence. But we don’t have that time, or money, or interest really. The less cute parts of conservation aren’t very profitable. 


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