Guest Opinion – The Owl They Will Shoot

guest opinion, by Ellen E. Taylor

NOTE: Opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the positions of the NEC or its Member organizations. 

The United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) faced a difficult problem. The Northern Spotted Owl  was vanishing from the forest, in spite of being listed as threatened in 1990 under the Endangered Species Act, assigned critical habitat on public lands, and given special protections related to  the activities of local timber companies. Its numbers continued to drop at a rate of 4% a year. Now suspicion was turning to the Barred Owl, whose assertive appearance in the Pacific Northwest could be causing the decline. So eight years ago, in 2012, the USFWS convened a study group to discuss the moral and practical dimensions raised by  this imminent peril. 

Heretofore, the Northern Spotted Owl’s dwindling numbers were thought to be related to the destruction of the owl’s habitat – the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Northern Spotted Owl. Credit: Chris Warren

The United States, the world leader in commercial logging, had  produced and consumed more wood than any other country: less than 15% of forests remained which were more than 100 years old.

However, another possible reason might be the increased presence of Barred Owls, a larger and less specialized species, that had gradually moved in from the east. This species was soon stigmatized as invasive, and its possible role in the disappearance of the Spotted Owl began to be studied. 

Verification of such a role was determined to be impossible without the drastic experiment of killing Barred Owls in specified  areas, and observing the effect. This occasioned some moral uncertainty: the dark side of science.

As the late Lowell Diller, biologist for Green Diamond Timber Company, described shooting an owl: “When I went out to do it the first time, I was shaking. I had to steady myself. I wasn’t sure I could actually do it.  It was so wrong to be shooting a beautiful raptor like this. It continues to be awkward to this day.”

 An avalanche of  computer model studies followed. Barred Owl killing caused immediate repopulation of habitat by Spotted Owls. Effects were frequently temporary, however, and many studies contradicted each other.  

Barred Owl. Credit: Fyn Kynd, Flikr.com, Creative Commons

The USFWS-convened study group, or Barred Owl Stakeholders Group, was composed of government officials, timber industry representatives, environmental NGOs, indigenous tribes, and wildlife rehabilitators. They were provided with reading lists, including works by Aldo Leopold and Plato.They were trained in collective decision-making by Group Dynamic specialists.  An Animal Ethicist attended their field trips and retreats. This was designed to be a Mount Sinai moment. 

After lengthy deliberation, the Group concluded that Barred Owls were the driving force behind “poor population performance” of Northern Spotted Owls. Even the fact that the two species interbred was condemned as “genetic swamping.” The USFWS decreed that Barred Owls should  be destroyed.

Now, eight years later, thousands of Barred Owls have been shot, and the practice is expanding.  Locally, Green Diamond’s new Habitat Conservation Plan has opened up its entire holdings to their extermination. In Washington and Oregon, and on public lands, Barred Owls are lured to a nearby branch and shot point blank. 

Friends of Animals, a 63-year-old international nonprofit, sued USFWS in 2014 over killing Barred Owls in violation of the Migratory Species Act and lost. Now they are suing the federal government for abuse of the ESA itself.

When Barred Owls are killed on private land, Northern Spotted Owls replace them. The USFWS decreed that, in exchange for shooting  Barred Owls (termed “mitigation”) on their timberlands, the companies would be allowed to “take” the habitat of the returning Spotted Owls. Since such individual Spotted Owls are “floaters,” and therefore not shielded by regulations, they do not have the status that protects the forest they are re-inhabiting. 

According to USFWS, “the take of Spotted Owls on the temporarily reoccupied sites is more than offset by the value of the information gained from this experiment and its potential contribution to a long-term Barred Owl management strategy.”

This obsessively overzealous, deranged  enforcement policy mirrors the nihilism of the current Administration in its swift shredding of the Endangered Species Act.  The very purpose of the ESA is to protect wildlife, in all its dynamic complexity. Science is being corrupted to the point of legalistic reductionism, and used to fly in the face of the rights of Mother Earth.