Without getting into the details of what this practically means, let me lay something else out there. In the past year and a half, Greater Yellowstone has seen three fatalities due to bear attacks. In previous recorded history, only six human fatalities from bear attacks in the entire ecosystem had ever been documented. Some have argued that the spike in fatalities is proof that grizzly bear numbers have adequately recovered; others have argued that the number of human and bear encounters are on the rise because climate change is having an adverse effect on grizzly habitat.
Answering who is right about that is for people with much more technological knowledge than me. What I want to call attention to, though, are the ethical assumptions that are underneath all of this. The first thing I notice is that very few would care about the protection of whitebark pines if it were not for saving grizzly bears. So, the question is: What underlies the speciesism, or the judgment that one species is worth more than another? Why is it that the government can say that whitebark pines are endangered but decline to list them as endangered? Related to this, why is it that a spike in the number of human and bear encounters is necessarily seen as a problem? More to the point, why is it that anyone could argue that the correct population threshold for grizzly bears might be determined based on problems that it might cause to the human community? Is that not also speciesism?
Admittedly, I am not a speciesist. I can find no reason to hold human values and desires as being ethically more worthy than those of bears or pine trees. I also do not understand why the human affinity for animals should therefore make them more valuable than an obscure species of pine trees or even to the beetles who are benefiting from climate change. But, rather than argue for that position, I am curious what rational justification others might have for why a human-based ethics is right.
It is easy in these discussions to throw around ad hominems. You can attack someone as a hypocrite because they eat, because they don't commit suicide because some other animal might need a meal, and because of other things of that sort. That is not a rational justification, however. Perhaps, we are all hypocrites and yet all are wrong. Or perhaps there is some other reason besides ethics that keeps us from slitting our wrists so that we can become fertilizer for a new forest.
It just seems that there has to be an answer, or else why save bears at all, why protect Yellowstone, and why do any of the things we do? Is it really just a social whim? And if we do find that beetles and whitebark pines really do matter, then why don't we resist the urge of couching our support in such blatantly anthropocentric ways? Why can't we have a discussion about whitebark pines without relating them to grizzlies and relating grizzlies back to what a large constituency of humans feels about them? Can't we see them and love them for what they are? What does it matter if there are one or a million human/bear interactions if there is a chance that all bears might not survive? (Note that I am not saying that human and bear interactions should be encouraged; what I am saying is that it is not the ethical basis from which to argue for the recovery of a species).
At this point, the discussion is open. What grounds our prejudices in favor of one species over another? If we have natural prejudices (like the prejudice to desire our own survival), is that necessarily the basis for all our policy decisions? Do all our prejudices rise above every other consideration? If not (as I would argue), where do we draw those lines? Or, perhaps, we need to stop having a God complex and stop drawing so many lines. With that, I'll leave these unanswered questions hanging from my own pine tree of sorts.
There are plenty of ways to know the world outside of setting up science experiments. I am just saying that our supposed primacy in the world is reflected in our dominant epistemology (science as study of objective nature), and that getting past this requires a reordering.
At the same time, it is one thing to declare all beings equal, and another to hammer out a forest management plan. (At this point we are "managing" forests whether we think we are or not, as the die-off of whitebark pines shows.) We can't say what is best for an ecosystem---but we can make informed decisions that are maybe also humble. Having partial knowledge is different from being superior. But it is still partial knowledge.
(It is actually a koan, no joke: something like "How do you comprehend a pine tree?")