A troubling plan slipped under the radar of Easterners who care about barred owls and native birds.
In the Pacific Northwest, northern spotted owls have been listed as threatened since 1990 under the Endangered Species Act. The number one cause for their decline is the logging of old-growth forest. The logging stopped in the national forests in 1991 but the spotted owl continues to decline, especially in smaller forest tracts.
Barred owls are distant relatives of the northern spotted owl. They formerly lived only east of the Great Plains but for 100 years they have slowly spread north and west and now inhabit the Pacific Northwest as well.
In recent years biologists studying spotted owls noticed the spotteds declined in zones where barreds increased, so U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed killing barred owls as an experiment to see if this helps the northern spotted owl.
The proposal, published in March 2012 as a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, included a public comment period. We may not have noticed the proposal but westerners saw and commented.
The comments were overwhelmingly negative from “Don’t do it!” to “This is stupid!” to an excellent letter by biologist Elizabeth Ellis who has studied northern spotted owl populations and pointed out the flaws in the proposal including the lack of barred owl population studies (it is threatened in parts of its range!), unknown human contribution — if any — to the barred owl’s range movement, the fact that the proposal tracts where barred owls have gained a foothold are known to be too small to adequately protect the northern spotted owl, and the wisdom of using limited management funds to kill an unstudied species.
If I’d had a chance to comment I would have said… (stepping up on my soapbox)…
Humans directly caused the disappearance of 90% of the Pacific Northwest old growth forest. When species are going extinct because of our actions we have a choice: Do we cut down the last 10% of the forest or stop logging? We can control the things that humans do, however…
We cannot control the rest of Nature. Humans did not actively introduce the barred owl. We don’t fully know why it arrived. It is hubris to think we can control what’s happening by killing it.
The barred owl is so closely related to the northern spotted owl that the two can interbreed. The barred owl may be adding strong genes that the spotted owls need to survive. Interbreeding is anathema to species purists but it’s how nature works. Would we cull blue-winged warblers because they interbreed with and seem to out-compete the less abundant golden-winged warbler? Culling native birds to protect a favorite species is a dangerous precedent.
The Pacific Northwest is not an isolated island so barred owls will continue to naturally arrive in the northern spotted owl’s territory. If the proposed experiment works the culling will have to continue as long as humans have the stomach and the money to do it.
I could go on and on…
At this point it is up to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to go forward with their plan. I hope they drop it like a hot potato!
(stepping down from my soapbox…)
Thanks for listening.
Click here for information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website on their plan to kill 3,600 barred owls in the Pacific Northwest.
(barred owl in Florida, photo by Chuck Tague)