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NFC: Species rights
The Rights of Species and Ecosystems
By E. P. Pister
Fisheries April 1995 Vol. 20, No. 4
Recent articles and letters in Fisheries (17 and 19,7) have
discussed rights of species and
ecosystems, with strong feelings both pro and con being expressed. The
issue of animal rights, a
very different matter, also has been raised. Nurtured by a long
association with A. Starker Leopold, my own concern for rights of fishes
from cyprinodonts to salmonids and all life forms precedes implementation
of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 by nearly a decade (Pister 1987).
The subject is of such paramount importance that I believe it warrants
further discussion and clarification in Fisheries.
The issue of species rights was placed squarely before me early in my
career. One instance involved protection of the Devil's Hole pupfish
(Cyprinodon diabolis) because irrigation pumping was draining the tiny
Nevada desert pool in which the species had evolved since its isolation
nearly 50,000 years before. My feelings were in accord with others: such
creatures had a right to continue their evolutionary progression, and
humans had no right to keep them from doing so (Ehrenfeld 1976).
Fortunately, the issue was resolved in favor of the fish by the U.S.
Supreme Court in 1976.
In another incident, to prevent extirpation of the golden trout
(Oncorhynchus aguabonita) within its evolutionary habitat in the upper
Kern River drainage, the California Department of Fish and Game found it
necessary to eradicate a nearly disastrous invasion of brown trout (Salmo
trutta) and then, to maintain historic evolutionary direction, to
reestablish both golden trout and Sacramento suckers (Catostomus
occidentalis). Although doing so caused heated confrontations with
various anglers (brown trout grow much larger than goldens, especially on
a rich golden trout diet), eradicating the browns was the only acceptable
thing to do. But to reintroduce suckers (heresy!) made fully as much
sense because of evolutionary influences exerted by suckers.
Additionally, suckers had a right to be in the stream, both morally and
biologically, and golden trout had a right to have them there.
Recognition of such rights for all life forms within an ecosystem is
essential to the biocentrism that must underlie any responsible and
sustainable fisheries program.
The concept of rights of creatures and even inanimate objects has been
with us for decades. Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, published in
1949, addressed the issue of intrinsic rights of ecosystems and their
associated life forms, and his concluding chapter--"The Land
Ethic"--explored the right to continued existence of animals and plants,
waters and soils. Leopold proposed that all life forms sharing the planet
with people have a biotic right to exist regardless of their economic
advantage to humans, and he grounded these obligations on their
individual contributions to biotic integrity and stability (Nash 1989).
After all, humans are directly dependent on proper functioning of
ecosystems and their species.
Some might debate the practicability of Leopold's land ethic in
contemporary fish and wildlife management. I remind them that Leopold
possessed an uncanny (and unparalleled) ability to anticipate the future
with extreme accuracy and perception, unadorned by needless
sophistication. His wisdom guided me through most of my 40-year career as
a fishery biologist, all of it in a field position (Pister 1987).
The matter of species rights was brought into sharp focus 20 years ago in
the now-famous Sierra Club v Morton case, which involved an application
by the Disney Corporation to the U.S. Forest Service to build a
potentially destructive ski resort at Mineral King in California's
southern Sierra Nevada. Law professor and philosopher Christopher Stone,
in his essay "Should Trees Have Standing?," attempted "to bring the
environment into society as a rightsholder" (Nash 1989:130), and the U.S.
Supreme Court had to consider the "conferral of [legal] standing upon
environmental objects to sue for their own preservation" (Stone 1974:73).
Although the court rejected the motion on a narrow 4-3 vote, minority
opinion author Justice William O. Douglas wrote eloquently in its
defense, citing efforts by Congress to save such life forms as pupfishes
Those who hike the Appalachian Trail into Sunfish Pond, New Jersey, and
camp or sleep there, or run the Allagash in Maine, or climb the
Guadalupes in West Texas, or who canoe and portage the Quetico Superior
in Minnesota, certainly should have standing to defend those natural
wonders before courts or agencies, though they live 3,000 miles away.
Those who merely are caught up in environmental news or propaganda and
flock to defend these waters or areas may be treated differently. That is
why these environmental issues should be tendered by the inanimate object
itself. Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which
it represents will stand before the court--the pileated woodpecker as
well as the coyote or bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the
streams. Those inarticulate members of the ecological group cannot speak.
But those people who have so frequented the place as to know its values
and wonders will be able to speak for the entire ecological community.
Ecology reflects the land ethic; Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County
Almanac 204 (1949), 'The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the
community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively,
That, as I see it, is the issue of "standing" in the current case and
Douglas's opinion, in general, was favorably received, and "Should Trees
Have Standing?" was viewed by many as a sign of better times to come.
Nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill (Nash 1989) put it this
way: "Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule,
discussion, adoption." We now find ourselves in the second stage and
rapidly approaching the third, during which the "unthinkable" becomes the
Discussion of such items as species rights has a definite place in
Fisheries. Our profession has suffered during the past century from a
philosophical direction that encouraged purposeful alteration of
ecosystems for short-term utilitarian purposes, including many
ill-considered species introductions. Thoughtful philosophical and
scientific discussion in defense of rights of native fauna might well
have directed otherwise. Surprisingly, the scientific community has
expressed no collective concern about such matters until recently. After
all, the concept of biodiversity preservation has been with us at least
since the era of Alfred Russel Wallace (1863) and Charles Darwin more
than a century ago. Apparently, we fell victim to the values of our own
In the process of establishing values and rights in nature, we surely can
avoid going the route of animal rights activists who strive to protect
individual creatures (including chickens, pigs, goldfish) but not
necessarily entire species. The goals of animal rights advocates and
conservation biologists are very different.
At this writing (December 1994), we find the future of the Endangered
Species Act and its implicit recognition of species rights far from
certain. We have no assurance that the act will be reauthorized at all,
let alone in a manner that will allow fisheries professionals to maintain
a functional level of aquatic biodiversity. This problem will become more
difficult as the planet's limited resources are spread among
ever-increasing numbers of people, each seeking a higher standard of
living. We may need to resort to the courts for relief, and the sooner we
establish legal rights for such things as species and ecosystems, the
better our chances of success will be.
Roger Langton (1993), addressing this issue in Aquatic Survival, presents
an intriguing perspective:
Humans, of course, have little difficulty granting rights to themselves
and, with typical anthropocentric arrogance, tell each other that only
those species that come closest to having human characteristics are
worthy of rights. I would like to suggest a different approach to
evaluating plant and animal rights: those species that contribute most to
the health of the earth and its biodiversity are most worthy of rights.
After all, if these creatures are not protected, the whole system is
threatened. Using this criterion, the case might be made that Homo
sapiens would be very low on the list of those eligible to be granted
rights .... It could even be argued that the extinction of humans might
be the one occurrence that would contribute most to the earth's
viability....I, for one, will champion the rights of fungus! On the other
hand, if humans were to emphasize desires that show respect for all life
and develop the capacity to learn values that result in a healthy
environment, they just might be worthy of a few rights also.
Unfortunately, the Golden Rule applies here: "Those with the most gold
make the rules," which remains the basis of the problem.
A question that lingers in the minds of many when seemingly insignificant
creatures are discussed is, What good are they? I have found an effective
retort to be, What good are you? Another, gentler version is a gem
extracted from Leopold's Round River, "The last word in ignorance is the
man who says of an animal or plant: 'What good is it'....If the biota, in
the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand,
then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every
cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."
A key point is that people have evolved a conscience, the only species to
our knowledge to have done so (although certain marine mammals and fellow
primates might disagree). We should do our best to nurture this attribute
lest in atrophy and disappear through an evolutionary process dominated
by increasingly utilitarian values. Establishment of rights of species
other than our own would constitute a major step in the proper direction,
while furthering the condition On which all life forms (including humans)
ultimately depend: "maintenance of the integrity, stability, and beauty
of the biotic community." Whether or not one may agree with Leopold, the
stark truth of his statement from A Sand County Almanac speaks for
Ehrenfeld, D. W. 1976. The conservation of non-resources. American
Langton, R. 1993. On the moral status of humans. Aquatic Survival 2(3):4.
Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County almanac and sketches here and there.
Oxford University Press, New York.
Nash, R. E 1989. The rights of nature: a history of environmental ethics.
University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
Pister, E. P. 1987. A pilgrim's progress from group A to group B. Pages
221-232 in J. Baird Callicott, ed. Companion to a Sand County almanac.
University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
Stone, C. D. 1974. Should trees have standing? Toward legal rights for
natural objects. William Kaufmann, Inc., Los Altos, CA.
Wallace, A. R. 1863. On the physical geography of the Malay Archipelago:
The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (London) 33:217-234.
Phil Pister is executive secretary of the Desert Fishes Council in
Help Preserve our Aquatic Heritage join the Native Fish Conservancy
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