An Ethics of Biodiversity: Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life

By Kevin J. O'Brien | Go to book overview

Introduction
Christian Ecological Ethics and Biodiversity

In the Pacific Northwest, the corner of the world where I live, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to shoot owls in order to save owls.

The birds to be shot are barred owls, a species native to the eastern side of the continent that has expanded its range, becoming particu- larly numerous in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. The birds to be saved are northern spotted owls, one of the most famous subspecies protected by the Endangered Species Act and an icon of environmental conflicts in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation. Spotted owls make their homes in the old-growth forests of this region, into which barred owls have moved.

When northern spotted owls were listed as a threatened species in 1990, the chief danger to their survival was the timber harvesting in western Washington, Oregon, and northern California. This sparked a contentious national debate in which many citizens understood the economic interests of logging communities as diametrically opposed to the environmental interest of preserving the subspecies and its hab- itat. After numerous controversies and compromises, the federal gov- ernment set aside a critical habitat of 6.9 million acres of old-growth forest for the owl, and logging was forbidden on those lands. This changed the economic structure of many communities and created a symbol of the perceived division between human and environmental interests for decades to come. Years later those divisions have not fully healed, and many questions remain about whether habitat conserva- tion and economic prosperity can coexist.

Unfortunately, something else that remains is the threat of north- ern spotted owl extinction. Already weakened by a reduced habitat, the owls face new threats, including mutating viruses such as West Nile, an increased risk of forest fires because of climate change, and an in- vasive species. This last threat is among the most severe: barred owls have the same nesting and dietary needs as their spotted cousins, and they are much more aggressive when competing for breeding ground.

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