Friday, September 19, 2008

On the Precautionary Principle

On this blog I've talked about ethics mostly as lived, personal experiences. In fact, I've even gone so far as to say it directly here. And yet, over time, ethical codes of conduct, peoples' attempts to create stability through consistency while being moved by compassion or a sense of 'right', inform choices; indeed, it is probably the interplay between experiences and codes that ethics is most clear.

There is a very clear ethical principle being espoused by the Environmental Justice movement, one that, if I were to fall out of the sky as a completely alien being and were to hear for the first time I would more probably attribute to conservative views, but here we are. This is the Precautionary Principle. Wikipedia does the definition and history greater justice than I, so I won't cover it so much. This principle, shortly, says that if you don't know whether something will hurt you or not, then you don't allow it until it can be proven to be benign. Although new-sounding and high-falutin', mushroom eaters have been following this principle for many years.

The Environmental Justice community wants to relate this to the use of chemicals in their community, and they have good reason. A recent report I heard claims that fewer than 2% of the chemicals used today have been tested for their effects on humans.

What I would like to know is, why might this be a controversial principle? It seems reasonable to me, and it seems like conservatives and liberals alike can get behind a principle that says, in effect, to slow down and first do no harm. But, I don't always have my finger on the pulse of folks' beliefs, so here's your chance to chime in...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A post on my other blog

I recently started another blog, which originally was going to be my reviews of outdoor products, but will also be a warehouse of comments that don't fit here. I recently posted on the current financial crisis, so if you are interested in economics, you can read it here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

White House Conference on Wildlife

Does anybody know about this conference taking place in Reno, October 1st-3rd? I've just heard about it, and hope to attend.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What makes a non-native species invasive?

I frequent very few other blogs these days, and I will soon have a list up of the ones I think are the best. However, one stands out as a well-written blog that has offered a number of great thoughts (some of which I've shamelessly stolen and written about here). It's the Hog Blog, by Phillip Loughlin, an excellent writer and thinker.

A few posts back, Mr. Loughlin brought up the question as to whether or not wild hogs are "invasive." This article (read it here) brought back some thoughts I've had in the past over the idea surrounding the term, a controversy that brings ethical questions to the fore.

Throughout the country, people encourage non-native species. The gardener who buys a pack of chilly ladybugs or some tablets of Bacillus thuriengiensis (Bti) to kill mosquitos and other pests may very well be distributing non-native species. Birdfeeders often attract and feed many nonnatives, from house sparrows to Eastern tree squirrels. State conservation agencies like my California Dept. of Fish & Game introduce non-natives, like McCloud river rainbow trout and wild turkeys, with myriad effects.

Of course, the contrary is also true: Many folks in California obtain depredation permits to kill wild turkeys, due to the agricultural damage they may cause. Mr. Loughlin's blog mentioned the Missouri Dept. of Conservation requesting hunters kill wild hogs on sight, fearing damage they may wreak upon the ag. industry.

In my various careers & hobbies, I've come across some interesting fights over non-native species. Feral cats come to mind. Cats, just about the most common pet in the US, have a special place in the hearts of many. And yet, their ability to breed quickly and tolerate people and each other in very small, overlapping territories, added to their nearly perfect bird-killing design, mean that feral cats have a tremendously negative impact. Since they are not a game animal (and who would eat one, anyway?), and since they are so close to humans, emotionally, the fight over controlling them is tough.

Eucalyptus trees in Santa Cruz also help to illustrate the complexities of non-native species and the designation of "invasive." Two groups fight over eucalyptus in Santa Cruz, a group that is pro-native plant and completely against non-natives, and a pro-monarch group that sees the eucalyptus as providing needed winter fuel for the butterflies.

Other, bigger fights exist, too, like non-native deer species in National Parks, giant river reed as a biofuel, and the wild pigs. Taken together, however, one can develop some general ideas to help direct management decisions.

I start with a tangential thought related to Aldo Leopold's quotation that, "to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." What is the role, in its new environment, of the particular species in question? Does it replace, or more efficiently inhabit, the niche of an existing entity? Does it take on the role of an extirpated species? Does it create negative space or null space, effectively crowding out species and taking up habitat, without contributing to the system? I ask the ecosystem questions first, and leave out economic and other considerations until these are generally understood, as these relationships necessarily have economic consequences, as well, and their foundation should first be sound. If the species in question has a negative or null effect on the system, I'd advise against introduction, and for efficient removal.

Applying these questions, I think that pigs may be helpful to the California ecosystem. I don't think pigs create 'negative' space in the way that, say, giant river reed does (sucking up water, providing no canopy for birds, killing neighboring plants). Pigs harbor native bugs, and can be eaten by apex predators like coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. I don't know if pigs are more efficiently replacing any native species. The local blacktail deer seem to be doing very well. In fact, California is experiencing a dearth of large animals, an ecologically recent phenomenon, especially in regions now inhabited by wild pigs, though not of their doing. And, we had a large animal that behaved very much like wild hogs, up until just over one hundred years ago: The California Golden bear. Grizzlies, though major predators, are also scavenging omnivores, like pigs. They turn over logs, uproot and dig, & eat all kinds of stuff. They basically disturb the earth wherever they go, an important component to many a healthy, functioning ecosystem, and one which only wild pigs, controlled fires, and black bears do now. Unfortunately, pigs don't bring in the needed energy and nutrients from the ocean like grizzlies did through the salmon, but what they are doing a keeping habitats in flux, turning over, aerating, fixing nitrogen, etc.

There may, of course, be downsides to pigs in the ecosystem, possibly as vectors of new diseases or pests, or the destruction of threatened species that bears would have left alone, but I don't have that information. Should those be the case, I'm prepared to change my mind. California has many ecosystems, so there is of course no 'one-size-fits-all', but for the most part, I think wild pigs here look to be alright. Turkeys, though, are a different story.

Please tell me what you think! What am I missing from my suggestions? What kind of scientific or ethical decisions have I lacked here? Comment and let me know.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Outdoor mentoring

Just a quick link to a website I found this morning, Outdoor Mentors, Inc. I don't really know anything about them, but their site says that they team up with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to provide mentoring for at-risk youth in a number of outdoor activities. It was started by the Kansas Dept. of Wildlife and Parks, but now includes 11 states. Unfortunately, California isn't one of those states, but if you are interested in seeing it here, or something like it, check out their website and then send me comments. Also, if you know of a program like that here in Northern California, definitely shoot me a comment. I'd love to plug it, and help out.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Calling out a disgusting comment, and then talking ethics

There exist many great websites about the outdoors. My interests and questions have led me to a number of hunting-related sites, where I find lively forums (fora?) filled with interested and interesting folks, most of whom are very mannerly and helpful. My tastes being more eclectic, I usually find myself in forums related to traditional archery (recurves, longbows, and selfbows) or subgauge shotguns (I shoot a 20 guage). However, two recurring themes stand out in these forums that I want to address - one directly related to hunting, but the other possibly a shared trait in other forums.

The first is the disgusting term, "sss" popping up with alarming frequency every time somebody talks about predators, in particular mountain lions in California. "sss" stands for, "shoot, shovel, shut up", which the person is suggesting someone do when they find a mountain lion. Currently, mounain lion hunting is illegal in California, and many hunters are upset about it, so when somebody posts a topic saying, "hey, I got a great picture of a mountain lion while deer hunting", somebody inevitably posts just those three letters in response. But, regardless of a person's position on this law, suggesting to another that they willingly break it in a web forum is inappropriate, ill-mannered, and unethical.

I have written a short piece alluding to laws and ethics on this blog; if you care to read it click here. I stopped visiting a couple of forums because of the prevalence of this practice, and I encourage hunters everywhere to consider, at least, the implications of suggesting illegal activity to someone who may be a minor and/or get caught in the act and pay a large fine or do jail time. In a future entry I'll attempt to cover the argument in the conservation community over the role of predators in our dramatically altered ecosystems, but for now I'm just going to stay on solid ground and condemn "sss" as a practice, and especially as a suggestion on web forums.

Considering this activity, and considering that the person receiving such "advice" may be a fifteen year-old with no other hunting role models, I'd like to consider ethical advice on forums in general. Of course, I love conversations about ethics (hence the blog). And very frequently people give their ethical views on many topics in the forums I frequent. Ideas like appropriate shooting distances, the nature of hunting preserves, and crossbows during archery season are all very important ethical topics about which many people disagree.

However, when somebody asks to hear others' ethics on a topic, even in the most mundane and calm way, the response is most frequently a defensive claim that ethics is personal, and people should stay out of folks' business. This claim then quickly gets caught up in other peoples' attempts to answer the question, and the ensuing conversation can get nasty. Two ideas come to mind when I come across these conversations: 1) Any of these people could be a child, and many reading it probably are; & 2) Do the people telling the questioner to butt out understand that they are making an ethical claim? The second bears explaining:

Statements with 'should' or 'ought' are ethical claims, in that they tell someone how to act. Telling a person that they should not interfere in anothers' ethical decisions is an ethical statement. The fact that this form of mannerly behavior is so deeply ingrained in our libertarianism does not separate it from ethics, it just makes it a predominant ethical claim, and one, therefore, easier to claim in public.

Granted, this ethical claim has helped make for an amazing, dynamic, diverse and wealthy country, especially when it goes hand-in-hand with our 1st Amendment rights. However, using it as a cudgel to bludgeon others' speech has its problems, not the least of which being the spirit of the 1st Amendment. In the context of web forums, I have a suggestion:

Remember that one of your readers is twelve years old, or fifteen, and forming their first views on hunting (or whatever your topic may be). Include in your description the idea that a person's ethics are individual and are to be respected, if you believe it. But, also include your ethics about hunting tactics, laws, and the like. If it were just you and this kid out in the field, would you do any less? Don't shortchange others' of your ethical perspective. You don't have to preach, though sometimes it'll sound preachy (I know), but in the end, the people who read it will take what they will.

Sure, this last advice is an ethical claim, but, as I'm not bound by relativism, I'm okay with that.