Wild Horses, UT West Desert (c) Kim Crumbo

Rewilding and Compassionate Conservation

By Kirk Robinson, Western Wildlife Conservancy   

Featured Image: Wild Horses, Utah West Desert (c) Kim Crumbo 

In his 1985 article “What is Conservation Biology?” Michael Soulé states three normative postulates of conservation biology: “diversity of organisms is good,” “ecological complexity is good,” and “evolution is good.” ‘Good’ is a normative term. We use it to make positive evaluations of various things, and most of us believe we ought to try to do what is good when we can. While these postulates cannot be tested or proven, in the words of Soulé they “. . . are value statements that make up the basis of an appropriate attitude toward other forms of life—an ecosophy (Naess, 1973).” As such, they are intended to serve as a moral basis for conservation, including of course rewilding.

These postulates probably strike most of us intuitively as true, but they are not uncontroversial. For example, most people believe that human flourishing is good although it sometimes harms other forms of life, even to the point of reducing diversity of organisms and ecological complexity. Modern agriculture, transportation, medical research, and energy production are examples. One can argue that we have taken this much too far, but my point is only that the different goods can and do conflict.

Another criticism—one sometimes made by advocates of “compassionate conservation”— is that the postulates do not include concern for the well-being of individual creatures. Too many conservationists—so the criticism goes—subordinate the good of individual creatures to the good of higher-level entities such as species and ecosystems. Individual creatures are deemed expendable; species and ecosystems are not. But why not? After all, a deer or a wolf is at least conscious and can experience pains and pleasures, while species and ecosystems cannot. (“Compassionate Conservation, Sentience, and Personhood”) This is a point worth heeding, but the implications are not obvious. My purpose in this article is to explore the implications.

Surely most people will agree that we should strive to protect ecosystems and species, as well as avoid causing unnecessary harm to individual creatures, while also promoting human flourishing (not by ceaseless population growth, but by improving the quality of life for all people). Each has a moral claim on us. In what follows I shall not address human flourishing further, except to observe that we have reached a point where any future human flourishing will depend more than ever on a flourishing natural world, making conservation and preservation more important than ever.

Rewilding is a conservation strategy that focuses on restoring damaged ecosystems to a healthier pre-damage state. It has been described as healing ecological wounds—wounds inflicted on the land and its community of life by us humans. (“​Ecological Wounds of North America,” Rewilding.org) This often requires active efforts to restore something needed for healthy ecological functioning, such as reintroducing wolves to habitats from which they have been extirpated, or removing exotic creatures, e.g., horses, cats, and goats, from habitats they have invaded.

By contrast, compassionate conservation emphasizes the importance of individual creatures. Its first principle, “Do No Harm,” is an injunction against causing suffering and death to sentient creatures. (“What is Compassionate Conservation?”) So, at least in emphasis, compassionate conservation is radically different from rewilding.

Passive rewilding is effective at times—for example, terminating livestock grazing to allow recovery of a riparian system. But many rewilding projects require active intervention that will unavoidably impact individual creatures, often in harmful ways. For example, reintroduction of wolves to former habitats typically involves capturing and sedating them, removing them from their home ground and from their family groups (unless the entire family group is captured and translocated together), then releasing them onto unfamiliar ground. Injuries and trauma are bound to occur and there might be fatalities. Similarly, reducing wild (some would say feral) horse and burro populations is harmful to the animals when it involves helicopter roundups and chemical or surgical sterilization. Even more so if animals are injured in the process, are confined for long periods in holding pens, or end up dog food. So, also, for eradicating exotic goats or cats from an island, which might entail outright killing them.

Proponents of rewilding accept some harm to individual creatures as the necessary cost of healing ecological wounds, which they regard as a higher good justifying the harm. Compassionate conservation, on the other hand, with its injunction against causing suffering, injury, or death to sentient creatures, appears incompatible with rewilding. Interpreted strictly, it allows only for passive restoration. In fact, the best way to ensure that you do no harm is to do nothing at all.

Intrinsic Value

At issue is how to determine what sorts of entities have moral standing so that we have an obligation to treat them in certain ways and not others—such as our obligation to treat dogs compassionately and not abusively. Let us grant, first, that human beings have moral standing. Then, by extension, we might include other species of animal because in important respects they are like humans, e.g., are conscious, intelligent, experience pains, pleasures, and emotions, have a point of view on the world, seek some things, avoid others, and so on. It follows that we should not harm them without a compelling reason. Perhaps we even have an obligation to help them out in some circumstances.

The catch-all term intrinsic value is often used for the kinds of properties, features, and capacities that most of us believe give creatures moral standing. But what about ecosystems and species? Do they possess intrinsic value? They are not conscious, not intelligent, do not experience pains, pleasures, or emotions, do not have a point of view on the world, do not seek some things and avoid other things, etc. They have their own amazing features, to be sure, but how are we to go about determining whether those features amount to intrinsic value? Is it all just a matter of personal sentiment? The case is even worse for species than for ecosystems, since, apart from the individual members comprising them, species are mere abstractions, and it seems nonsensical to speak of an obligation owed to an abstraction. Even if we conceive of a species, not as an abstraction, but as numerous concrete individuals of a kind, and granting also that we have an obligation not to kill creatures without good reason, do we have an additional obligation to not kill all of them—that is, an additional obligation to not bring about the extinction of the species? The idea seems moot, since not killing any of them would suffice. The point is that the notion of intrinsic value, attractive as it might be, is philosophically problematic. It is hard to say what it is, let alone give criteria for it. It might just be a metaphysical fiction.

Some ethicists argue that ecosystems and species lack moral standing precisely because they are so unlike sentient creatures that they lack intrinsic value. On this view, we should preserve ecosystems and species, not because we have obligations to them, but solely because we should not harm sentient creatures. Fine. But preservation is not the same as rewilding. Preservation is hands-off; rewilding is hands-on. The question is, if ecosystems and species lack moral standing, then why should we engage in rewilding, particularly given the harm it will cause to some creatures? Maybe we should not do it.

If we dislike this conclusion, we need to find an alternative view. How about this. Despite lack of proof of the foundational claims about intrinsic value, intuition speaks strongly to many of us in favor of their truth, so let’s posit that healthy ecosystems possess intrinsic value of their own, such that rewilding is a good thing on a par with, say, rehabilitating an injured person or animal; and let’s posit that rewilding helps insure against species extinction, which is a good thing because species possess intrinsic value. We simply accept these posits without argument, just as we do Soulé’s normative postulates. Taken together they form a more complete rewilding ethic. Most of us find this satisfactory—maybe not fully satisfying, but satisfactory.

A Second Alternative View

Native American petroglyph: wolf pursuing bighorn sheep.

Native American petroglyph: wolf pursuing bighorn sheep. (c) Kirk Robinson

There is another way to look at rewilding, starting with the fact that rewilding an ecosystem improves the lives of the creatures that depend on it by promoting conditions that are better for them. If this is right, then although rewilding might harm some creatures, it will benefit a great many more, including both those presently existing and those of the future. And this is presumably enough to outweigh the harm done to some. Rewilding can then be reckoned good—if not morally obligatory, at least morally laudatory.

In contemplating this it helps to remember that an ecosystem, even one damaged by humans, is the product of millions of years of evolution. The result is a huge diversity of organisms in relations of great ecological complexity, where each species has a niche in which its individual members enjoy optimal fit with the habitat—that is, where they enjoy the greatest prospect of living their lives according to their inherent natures. If we now add the entirely plausible premise that this kind of life is what constitutes the highest good for a wild creature, we have a strong moral justification for rewilding. The key here is to realize that the concept ‘good’ is not equivalent to the concept ‘not bad’. It is much more expansive.

If I understand her, philosopher Christine Korsgaard would endorse this view. (Korsgaard, C. 2018. Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals. Oxford University Press.) Korsgaard starts with the assumption, which she believes to be true, that nothing is good-in-itself; rather, whatever is good is good for someone or some creature (or in the case of instruments, good for some purpose). When we say without qualification, as we frequently do, that something is good, all we are really saying is that it is good for something or someone, or that we approve of it or like it. We are not saying that it is good without qualification, even if we think we are. Another way of putting this point might be to say that the attribution of intrinsic value is illusory—we think we are saying something about objective reality, but we are not. However, Korsgaard has no need to invoke the notion of intrinsic value because in her view a good life is not one that is good-in-itself, but one that is good for the creature whose life it is. And a life lived according to its inherent nature is in fact the “final” or absolute good for a creature. For example, the best life for a zebra or a lion is not one lived in captivity, even with easy meals and medical care, but one lived in the wild with plenty of nourishing grass for the zebra and plenty of zebras for the lion. As Korsgaard puts it, “Life is a good, existence is a good—except when it is bad—and that is not a tautology!” In other words, life is good even though nature be “red in tooth and claw.” In fact, this reality makes for the best possible kind of life for both zebra and lion because it is the kind of life they are made for. (Human beings are a different case owing to our apparently unique capacity for engaging in reevaluation and potential revision of our values—a separate topic that I will not get into.)

Interestingly, while this view does not depend on the notion of intrinsic value, it is not incompatible with such a view. A person can reasonably hold both views simultaneously. You can believe that individual creatures have intrinsic value and also believe that the highest possible good for a creature is a life lived according to its inherent nature. If you want to, you can even think of its potential for such a life as what gives a creature intrinsic value. The chief value of Korsgaard’s argument, I believe, is that it provides a more rationally compelling, and therefore more intellectually satisfying, basis for rewilding than does intuition alone. And it takes us far beyond “First do no harm.”

There is another important aspect of Korsgaard’s view that is a corollary of the other two. If all good is “good for” and if the best life for a creature is one lived according to its inherent nature, then cross-species comparisons of what constitutes a good life are totally misguided. If a lion kills a zebra, that is good for the lion and bad for the zebra, but there is no independent point of view from which we can say that the lion’s life is better or more important than the zebra’s. The lion’s life is better for it and the zebra’s life is better for it, that’s all. Similarly, it makes no sense to think or say that your life is better or worse than the life of a porcupine, no matter how good your life is or how bad the porcupine’s is because there is no independent point of view from which such evaluations can be made. Philosopher John Stuart Mill was therefore wrong when he asserted “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” On the other hand, Mill might have been right when he immediately followed with the further claim that it is “. . . better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” At least the second claim is not a cross-species comparison.) (Mill, J.S. 1863. Utilitarianism. London.)

The view that we humans have a right to treat other animals however we wish because we are superior to them rests on the same false assumption that there is a creature-independent point of view. The import of this fact is that we humans have no greater (or lesser) right to life than do other creatures and our lives are no more (or less) important than theirs. This is consonant with and provides justification for Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”: “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, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches here and there. Oxford University Press.) The whole point of rewilding is to do just this.

Compassionate Rewilding

Native American petroglyph: cougar

Native American petroglyph: cougar (c) Kirk Robinson

From the foregoing we can extrapolate a rule: Engage in rewilding but try hard not to harm creatures when doing so. We might call this the rule of compassionate rewilding. No doubt it will seem quite inadequate to many. Of what possible practical importance is it? How can we use it as a guide? We want certainty in our moral judgments and this doesn’t seem to offer much help.

However, the world is not simple and no simple rule is going to yield moral certainty in every application. The value of this crude rule is that it can help us appreciate the relevant facts of a particular case as we design and carry out rewilding projects. Consider the passage of Proposition 114 in Colorado, which mandates the reintroduction of gray wolves to the west slope of Colorado. Since the passage of 114, an important question has come to the fore among wolf advocates: Should we or should we not tolerate killing wolves at the behest of livestock growers, ostensibly to protect livestock?

Applying our rule, here is my provisional answer for your consideration: There should be no killing of wolves for preying on livestock. Certainly, if there were no wolves at all, then livestock will not be killed by them, but that is not the issue, since wolves have at least as much right to inhabit the land as exotic creatures like cows. Of first importance is the fact that killing wolves causes death and suffering to the animals, which, far from being compassionate, is cruel. It can only be justified, if at all, on the condition that it can be counted on to prevent the death of livestock animals—and further, that there are no feasible alternatives for doing so. The available evidence, however, indicates that killing a wolf that has preyed on livestock can only be counted on to prevent that wolf from doing so again, not to prevent other wolves from doing it—not for long anyway. It can also be counterproductive, for should a provider member of the pack be killed, leaving other members to fend for themselves, a cycle of livestock predation and revenge wolf killing might be perpetuated. Instead, ranchers should use available nonlethal methods for preventing livestock predation, thereby eliminating much unnecessary suffering of their own animals as well as to wolves. In return, there can be state-guaranteed compensation for verified losses of livestock to predation. (This last part—state compensation for verified losses—is required by 114.) Finally, we also ought to consider that killing wolves will to some extent interfere with the rewilding project and the good it promises to bring about. My conclusion: On balance, there is no good reason for applying “lethal control” to wolves in response to their preying on livestock, but good reasons not to.

Please note that I have tried to state this in a way that does not absolutely rule out the possibility of justified non-revenge killing of wolves that prey on livestock. Whether there can actually be a case like this, however, and what the details might be, are another matter.

Now what about wild horses and burros? First, we must note that these creatures are protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Wiping them out is not an option, even if they are an invasive species as many believe. Thus, true rewilding might be off the table. (I’m not going to try to adjudicate the “wild” vs. “feral” debate.) Besides, equids are hardly the only invasive critters on the public lands, so complete rewilding would necessarily require more than just their removal! Hundreds of thousands of cows and sheep would have to go too. If herd numbers must be reduced—and I’ll leave that an open question—then it should be done as humanely as possible. What might this involve? Well, one exciting possibility worth considering is to one, reintroduce wolves and two, end mountain lion hunting. This strikes me as an experiment worth trying before we resort to more extreme, barbaric, and cruel measures.

Here’s why. Some mountain lions will specialize in taking horses in the rougher terrain where springs and seeps are typically located—places that also happen to provide stalking cover for successful ambush attacks. This will give horses an incentive to spend as little time as necessary in such places, therefore spending more time in flatter terrain where wolves will prey on the weaker members of the herd. Together, the two apex predators will put a squeeze on the equids to thin the herd and keep them on the move. There are places where this might well be sufficient by itself to “control” the size of a herd without any need for human intervention. (“Environmental influences on movements and distribution of a wild horse (Equus caballus) population in western Nevada, USA: a 25-year study“) It will have three very important additional benefits as well: It will (1) be the least expensive option by far, (2) will result in the restoration of riparian ecosystems, and not least, (3) will be humane. Everything speaks for it, nothing against it—except of course the livestock industry, which doesn’t like “wild” horses and burros, mountain lions, or wolves.

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Zach Finn - April 2, 2021

I did not like this post very much.
Get rid of the invasive species with lethal control and the problem is solved.
Pittering around with “should we do it or shouldn’t we not because people might get upset” is absolutely frustrating to me.
I understand this can be flipped on its head coming from the viewpoint developers and ranchers AGAINST rewilding. But when it’s cut and dry “these animals weren’t here before and now they’re causing a lot of damage” presents an obvious solution. Horse ladies and cat ladies shouldn’t hinder how we manage our natural resources.

Yes I hunt and have taken an animal’s life (for food). Seeing an animal die sucks. But the benefits of ecosystem restoration far outweigh what would happen to what’s left of our natural resources and our wildlife if these invasive species, with a disproportionate affect on the rest of life that SHOULD be in a certain area, are allowed to continue existing in these areas while we argue about how to handle the problem.

However, of course I agree that wolves and cougars should be restored and not hunted.

Dr Mark Fisher - April 2, 2021

The proliferation of feral horses arising from abandonment is a serious threat to native vegetation where ever it occurs unregulated, such as in the Letea Forest in Romania and Alpine Australia. The sentimentality with which these horses are regarded makes it difficult to see the destruction for what it is – a trophic imbalance. I was worried, when I started reading your article, that you were going to add to that difficulty, and so I am glad that I was wrong, and thank you for saying what needs to be said. Your solution makes ecological sense, two sympatric large carnivores but with some spatial differentiation in their hunting grounds. It is obviously born out of the exemplary mission and vision of the Western Wildlife Conservancy.

I was only recently reading up about the situation of wolves in Utah after puting together their distribution surrounding Colorado, and considering what impact that may have now that Proposition 114 has passed. It was depressing to read a post from last June from the Wolf Conservation Centre that the State of Utah has authority to manage wolves in the delisted area in the north of the state, the very place where wolves are turning up, having crossed the borders with Idaho and Wyoming. I guess Utah is going to be a tough state to get that experiment going.

    Kirk Robinson - April 20, 2021

    Thanks for your comments, Mark. You are right that there is no way the State of Utah will every willingly accept wolves. But Utah doesn’t willingly accept much of anything the federal government does – witness Bears Ears National Monument. Successful reintroduction to Colorado and continued federal protection in Utah (once the nationwide delisting is overturned) is the only realistic hope of wolves returning to the Beehive State.

    FYI: George Wuerthner doesn’t think my proposed solution to the “wild horse” problem is likely to succeed, and I have to grant that there probably aren’t many places where it might. But I can think of some where I think it would be worth a try. Now if we can just salvage or recreate the genome of the extinct American lion, and have African lions be surrogate mothers, then re-introduce them, they might be up to the job. After all, they are very likely as native as the present day “wild horses”.

    Kirk Robinson - April 20, 2021

    So what does a man of action such as yourself recommend, wholesale slaughter?
    Don’t forget that we have the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. But then maybe you don’t view that as a deterrent.

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