Moral Codes of Conduct

Scientists studying animal behavior have shown that species ranging from mice to primates are governed by moral codes of conduct in the same way as humans. Historically, humans were thought to be the only species to experience complex emotions and to have a sense of morality.

Often, conservation biologists, researchers, and perhaps field biologists and the like, deny animals moral status or equal consideration with humans due to either a belief that animals lack consciousness, reasoning powers, or autonomy, or due to a complete disregard for the animal, i.e., they lack any moral compass with regards to non-human animals. Worse still would be the wildlife manager that regards animals as having no moral standing—viewing populations of animals as homogenous, abstract entities. And often, when it comes to large carnivores—notably when it comes to wolves, animal ethics are nonexistent, nevermind attending to the interests of individual sentient non-human beings. The negative perception of the wolf, be it conscious or subconscious, is often influenced by deeply rooted hostility to the species in human history and culture, and by people’s relationship with nature, which often aligns with the vision that “man is the master of nature,” rather than a part of nature.

Conservation translocation—scientists moving endangered species that are unable to shift their habitats on their own into new locations—is on the rise. For many species the future is either extinction or translocation as the impacts of climate change increase.

Well over 1,000 species have had to be relocated because of climate change, poaching and human destruction of their habitat, according to a top conservationist. And thanks to human pressures driving extinction events, translocations are escalating in terms of frequency and geographical spread, not just for the sake of an individual species but also for the restoration of entire ecosystems.

Conservation practice is informed by science, but it also reflects ethical beliefs about how humanity ought to value and interact with Earth’s biota. As human activities continue to drive extinctions and diminish critical life-sustaining ecosystem processes, achieving conservation goals becomes increasingly urgent. However, the determination to react decisively can drive conservationists to handle complex challenges without due deliberation, particularly when wildlife individuals are sacrificed for the so-called greater good of wildlife collectives (populations, species, ecosystems).

With growing recognition of the widespread sentience and sapience of many nonhuman animals, standard conservation practices that categorically prioritize collectives without due consideration for the well-being of individuals are ethically untenable.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
(Leopold, 1949)

And this tends otherwise:

When biologists stocked a deer-heavy Southeast Alaska island with wolves

Alaska had been a state for one year in 1960 when its Department of Fish and Game conducted a wolf-planting experiment on Coronation Island in Southeast Alaska. At the time, the remote 45-square-mile island exposed to the open Pacific had a high density of black-tailed deer and no wolves. That summer, biologists from Fish and Game released two pairs of wolves on the island.

The experiment was the only wolf-stocking effort undertaken in Alaska and probably worldwide at that time, said Dave Klein, a professor emeritus with the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology. Klein, who had studied deer on the island for his doctoral thesis, helped the state make the decision to transplant wolves on Coronation Island.

“Alaska had just become a state and you had a brand-new Department of Fish and Game staffed with young biologists who wanted to do things based on biology rather than a mix of politics and science. It’d be much more difficult to do it now.”

Fish and Game biologists released two male and two female wolves at Egg Harbor on Coronation Island. Before they left, the researchers shot five deer to provide food for the wolves.

Biologist Paul Garceau visited the island the next May and found tracks, deer remains and wolf scats containing deer hair and bones, showing that the wolves had adapted to life on the island.

Two months later, a commercial fisherman shot the two adult female wolves, but Garceau saw tracks of wolf pups on the island when he returned later that summer, indicating that the females had given birth before they died, and the pups had survived.

In 1964, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Harry Merriam explored the island for eight days and saw 11 adult wolves and the tracks of two pups. He estimated that at least 13 wolves lived on the island and three litters of young had been born since the first wolves had arrived.

The following summer, in 1965, Merriam spent 10 days on the island, seeing wolf tracks on all the beaches. He saw no sign of deer on the north side of the island, but found deer tracks on the steep slopes of the island’s south side, where rough terrain and dense brush may have provided the best chance for deer to escape wolves.

In February 1966, Merriam saw only three wolves on the island, and their tracks suggested they were the only wolves left. He examined more than 100 wolf scats; six of those contained wolf remains only, suggesting the animals had resorted to cannibalism. Deer remains in the scats were less than one half of the previous spring; fragments of birds, seals, sea creatures and small mammals constituted the rest.

In August 1966, Merriam and his partners collected seven wolf scats, compared to 201 one year before. They found just three sets of fresh deer tracks.

By 1968, one wolf remained on the island. Biologists who inventoried the island’s animals in 1983 found no evidence of wolves, but the deer were once again plentiful.

Alaska’s only wolf-stocking experiment taught biologists the importance of habitat size (they concluded that a 45-square-mile island was too small for both deer and wolves). The study also showed how many factors play into the dynamics of a wild animal population, which is a point Klein said many people miss in arguments about wolf control.

“The relationship between wolves and their prey is very complex,” he said. “Sometimes wolves are the key predators of caribou or moose, sometimes bears. Sometimes severe weather is the main factor, sometimes food availability.

“The main problem with these kinds of controversies is people are unwilling to look at the complexity of the ecosystems involved. Things are not simple in nature.”

No remorse. No mention of what Alaska’s only wolf-stocking experiment also should have taught them: compassion and a moral code of conduct.

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