Pondering our Wildlife Biases

President's Message

Pondering our Wildlife Biases

Some of my more personally revealing reflections occur while meandering through the woods or out in nature while running my dog or otherwise enjoying the outdoors. I had a moment of reflection the other day that inspired me to include it here. I was standing on the edge of a large wetland area and as I saw a pair of ducks wrestling their way through thick cattails, I felt great excitement and anticipation at the prospect they were potentially canvasbacks. However, upon the realization they were “just” northern shovelers, I experienced a little disappointment and was let down. Two species, both ducks, vastly different in their coloration and profile, yet I wanted so badly for them to be one species that I was seriously disappointed when they turned out to be a completely different species and that’s where the reflection began.

A northern shoveler pair

Why was I placing such different values on these two species? What about them and their life histories warranted such different values? That question I then pondered for many different fish and wildlife species. What is it that drives a particular species’ value in the eyes, hearts, and minds of its observers? Issues of rarity versus commonality, food value and consumability, native versus non-native, and predator versus prey all seem to play a role in our personal biases toward fish and wildlife species.

Each of us maintains our own unique criteria and biases for how we relate to and value the species around us and most of us would struggle to clearly articulate our wildlife value criteria if asked. Is it rare or novel to us? As a hunter and an angler, I’ve often witnessed the appeal of novel or unique species to hunters and fishermen as they travel, seeking novel species. Birders as well will fly halfway around the world to see a rare bird species but won’t walk to the end of the block to see something they’ve seen before. Rarity and novelty often drive our perceived value of species.

Is it a species we can recreationally pursue to catch, kill, or consume? Certainly, species that can be used as food to sustain us and have historically or evolutionarily ensured our survival are likely to garner greater value than those as seen with little or no food value to us.

Native species, many of us feel, have a greater right to be present than their non-native peers. As such, we often hold native species in higher regard than non-native species.

Predator species and prey species also invoke often different perspectives relative to a species’ value. Species capable of inflicting pain and suffering on other species are more easily vilified, like wolves, lions, and coyotes. However, despite their vilification, they can also more readily remind us of our domesticated family pets and in doing so also derive greater value as a result.

Any one of these forementioned factors can result in us holding a species in higher or lower esteem but combining multiple factors really tips the scales. For example, a rare native species with historically significant food value is widely held in high regard.

Unique and rare colors, odd shapes or appendages, relative risk to humans, and human-like facial expressions or anatomy are also factors affecting how likely we are to value a given species. The next time you find yourself giving favor to one species over another, take some time to ponder those values you assign to various species and the potential reasons why you do so. It is good for all of us to know our biases.

However, despite the different relative values we might assign fish and wildlife, at the end of the day, most of us love and respect wildlife and would choose to live in a world with the fish and wildlife species we hold in lesser regard or value, than to live in a world without fish and wildlife.

I believe as clear evidence of this is even the cold-blooded, human-threatening, non-food, ecosystem-destroying, non-native Burmese pythons being targeted for removal from the Florida Everglades are euthanized via mostly humane means. If we can go the extra mile to ensure humane euthanasia for a destructive species like the invasive, non-native pythons wreaking havoc on an imperiled ecosystem, that speaks volumes about how we value animal life. Perhaps that’s why the recent Wyoming wolf hit by a snowmobile, captured, and then killed behind a bar registered such a strong and visceral objection by so many of us. I believe there are valid reasons that underlie the myriads of quotes that make reference and relate the treatment of wildlife with the state of humanity and while the values we assign to our favorite animals may vary, most all of us value the welfare of living animals, even if it’s an invasive python.

Photo Credit
chumlee, Flickr
June 14, 2024