Monday, February 07, 2011

Shooting Barred Owls to Save Spotted Owls

Barred owls shot by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to save populations of the Northern spotted owl.

Forest managers in the Pacific Northwest are facing a tough decision. Environmentalists shut down logging in the national forests in the1980s and 1990s in order to save the Northern spotted owl. Considered an indicator species by biologists, meaning that a given species is studied and assumed to be indicative of the health of species throughout the ecosystem, this sensitive owl needs old growth forest to survive. Overlogging and deforestation sent spotted owl numbers plummeting. Federal courts forced the government to list the owl under the Endangered Species Act, which closed off the remaining old growth forest in the Northwest to logging.

In the last 20 years, spotted owl numbers have not recovered. This is largely because of the arrival of the more aggressive and closely related barred owl. Many scientists believe the barred owl is little different from the spotted owl, perhaps only separated by a few thousand years of living in different forests. The natural westward migration of the barred owl has threatened spotted owl populations both because the barred owl both mates with spotted owls and often eats them.

In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made the decision to start shooting barred owls in order to protect the spotted owl.

This is a terrible idea.

Barred owls are a native species that migrated to the Northwest on their own and are competing with other owls for survival. There's nothing here that deserves human intervention.

Of course, we manage our environments intensively. We make all sorts of decisions that favor one species over another. So it's hardly a stretch for biologists to imagine managing this species as well. But this is precisely the wrong way to manage a forest.

Moreover, it's almost certain to be a futile endeavor. Barred owls are going to continue seeing the spotted owl dominated areas as perfect habitat. Were this to work, it would have to be an effort without a foreseeable end and for a point of unclear ethics.

On the other hand, there's been a lot of blood and tears sweated over the spotted owl. The government found itself caught flat-footed over the spotted owl and struggled to deal with the regional implications. The decision to shoot barred owls suggests that this is a political rather than biological decision; the point of the spotted owl was not so much the save the owl per se as to preserve the last bits of an ecologically rich forest. Environmentalists are split on the decision to shoot the barred owl--some see it as necessary to protect the species they've invested so much in while others view it as opposed to everything in which they believe. 

However, local politicians in the timber belt still don't get it either. They are chomping at the bit for the spotted owl to be eliminated, thinking that will reopen the forests to logging and that 1985 will return. That's not going to happen. Even if the spotted owl went extinct, environmentalists would find another species to get listed under the Endangered Species Act because, again, the point of the indicator species is that if it's declining, it's quite the entire ecosystem is under attack. That was certainly the case with old-growth forests and the timber industry in the 1980s.

This is just kind of depressing. That pan full of dead owls made me sad.