"The spotted owl is the poster boy on how to use the Endangered Species Act to accomplish a goal beyond the species itself and how things can get messed up."

Ban Nock writing in the Daily Kos

The U.S. Department of the InteriSlide1or has taken aim at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s iconic Woodsy Owl, who used to say, “Give a hoot. Don’t pollute.” but now says, “Wait! Don’t shoot!”

In hopes of helping the northern spotted owl’s numbers increase, starting this fall, the United States Fish&Wildlife Service plans to “remove barred owls from parts of up to four study areas in the northern spotted owl’s range…”[1]

Forest scientist, Dr. Bob Zybach sums the usefulness of Fish&Wildlife Service’s s plan thus: “Efforts to stabilize or increase spotted owls numbers have cost American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, been partly responsible for unprecedented numbers of catastrophic wildfires, caused the loss of tens of thousands tax-producing jobs for western US families, created economic hardships for hundreds of rural counties, towns, and industries, and indirectly resulted in the deaths of millions of native plants and animals.”[2]Even the liberal Daily Kos thinks the Fish & Wildlife Service plan is daft: “The spotted owl is the poster boy on how to use the Endangered Species Act to accomplish a goal beyond the species itself and how things can get messed up.”[3]

The plan does have a few supporters (with multiple caveats). Though the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society wants “continued, full protection of Barred Owls under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918,” they “are willing to concede to experimental removal only for the specific purpose of determining whether long-term lethal control of Barred Owls is warranted and practical” and only to “prevent the Spotted Owl from going extinct.”[4]

What brought this plan on in the first place? Despite more than twenty years of federal protection, the northern spotted owl population has been declining at a rate between two and five percent (depending on who does the counting) per year. In 1990, the Fish & Wildlife Service listed the spotted owl as endangered[5], and since the spotted owl was said to need old growth forest components[6], the federal government put much of its forests off-limits to logging. That stopped 80% of the timber harvesting occurring in the Pacific northwest forests.

The barred owl (a cousin of the spotted owl) has been fingered as an accomplice to the loss of habitat. It arrived in spotted owl habitat in the 1970s, and, once there, outcompetes (and sometimes eats) the spotted owls and takes over their roosts.

How the barred owl muscled its way into spotted owl territory is debated. The idea used by Fish & Wildlife Service says they hopscotched their way across the U.S. using trees that people planted in the Great Plains as waystations. Another possibility is that they moved east through Canadian forests and down into the Pacific Northwest. Although neither idea explains how the barred owl can range south into Mexico.[7]

Despite the debate, there is a plan, and it looks like a bad idea:
  • First, it is unachievable. The barred owls cannot be eliminated because they like the habitat as much as the spotted owls, and this "invasion" by barred owls is a "natural" (as if anyone can agree what that definition is) phenomenon. People may have helped them, but the barred owls could have taken the northern route through Canada too.
  • Second, when we have invasives such as zebra mussels and quagga mussels, Asian carp, nutria, kudzu, etc., that will hurt people and the environment, the threat of whether one owl outcompetes another owl for food is small beer. “The scope of the invasion of barred owls versus the relative impact of something like quagga and zebra mussels,” Greg Guisti, Lake County extension adviser told me in an interview. “I don’t know if you can compare them—they are literally apples and space shuttles.”
  • Third, the way we think of species and develop strategies is flawed. “[T]he old model for protecting species needs to adapt just like a species would,” wildlife biologist Jim Steele told me in an email. “But this will require a willingness for developers and managers to help with the problem of disappearing species and invasive introductions; and for environmentally concerned people to let them. Otherwise the interpretation of what is at risk goes to the agencies with the shrinking budgets who will find it easier to say no or nothing at all until it’s too late.”
“No,” Steele told me, “our money is not being spent wisely, but then you knew that.”

Now you do too.


[1] Media release. United States Fish & Wildlife ServiceFinal Decision Announced for Barred Owl Removal Experimenthttp://www.fws.gov/pacific/news/news.cfm?id=2144375288 accessed 9/11/2013

[2]Zybach, Bob. Spotted Owls and the Spotty Sciences that Spawned Them-5 Questions http://www.nwmapsco.com/ZybachB/Articles/Spotted_Owls_2013/Zybach_201306...

[3] Nock, Ban. Shooting Barred Owls To Save Spotted Owls http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/07/26/1226699/-Shooting-Barred-Owls-T...

[4] http://olympicpeninsulaaudubon.org/conservation/barred-owl-management/

[5] Katie M. Dugger, Robert G. Anthony, And Lawrence S. Andrews, Transient dynamics of invasive competition: Barred Owls, Spotted Owls, habitat, and the demons of competition present. http://www.esajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1890/10-2142.1

[6] IBID

[7] Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds. Barred Owl. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/barred_owl/lifehistory