Ethical issues in vertebrate pest management: can we balance the welfare of individuals and ecosystems?

The unique flora and fauna of New Zealand and Australia arose largely due to speciation that occurred in geographic isolation for approximately 60 and 38 million years respectively. However, the ecosystems of both countries now contain a heterogeneous mixture of native and introduced biota. In Australia there are 99 feral or exotic vertebrate species that have established wild populations in terrestrial habitats and inland waterways. The 90 exotic vertebrate species in New Zealand represent some 37% of the overall vertebrate fauna. Introduced herbivores, such as the European rabbit, have had a deleterious effect on entire plant communities and co-dependent species. Feral and exotic predators, such as the feral cat, red fox, ferret, stoat and weasel either directly threaten or contribute to the endangerment of a wide range of native species. Some introduced species also affect the profitability of agricultural systems by predation of livestock and the degradation of grazing or crop lands. Many introduced species are capable of maintaining reservoirs of exotic diseases which would, in their absence, have little endemic potential. Habitat alteration by humans in the last two centuries also has increased the abundance and range of some native species which are now also considered pests. The label of vertebrate pest is however often subjective and ambiguous, and frequently reflects a particular perception, bias or expectation, that may not be universally accepted. It is without doubt possible to inflict pain and distress upon many vertebrate pest species. In doing this, even to promote the conservation of native species, the control of vertebrate pests may be regarded as an active form of speciesism. A tenet of utilitarian philosophers suggests that, in some cases, inflicting pain can be an ethical choice if it reduces the total amount of pain and suffering, resulting in a general good. However, there are many cases where small populations of native wildlife can be conserved by the ongoing control of far more abundant pest species. Therefore, it is difficult to justify the control of vertebrate pests using a utilitarian ethic. Moreover, this is even more problematic if it is accepted that all sentient animals have rights. Under such conditions the rights of an individual of a critically endangered species may be no greater than those of an individual vertebrate pest, which threatens its existence. The ethical significance of subjecting vertebrate pest species to unavoidable pain or suffering must be reconciled with the ethical significance of species extinction or wider ecosystem effects. The philosophical positions of some animal welfare organisations are not easily reconciled with many species conservation and biodiversity objectives in Australia and New Zealand. It is necessary for wildlife managers to seek an ethical basis for the control of vertebrate pests which addresses such considerations. In this paper the basis for such an ethic is explored with respect to ecological management. The refinement of two control techniques and a strategic approach to the control of some pests are given as examples of how any pain and suffering experienced by vertebrate pest species can be minimised.

Author Marks, C.
Date 26/05/1996
Year 1999
Secondary title The Use of Wildlife for Research
Place published Conference Location
Publisher ANZCCART
Pages 79-89
Notes Notes