Wildlife officials have announced a plan to send hunters into the woods to kill one species of owl to save another in the Pacific Northwest this fall, but some still say that’s not the best solution.
This week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a final environmental review of a proposed experiment that will involve killing 3,603 barred owls in Washington, Oregon and Northern California over the next four years to see if it will help the northern spotted owl, who is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
While many agree that we need to protect northern spotted owls, not everyone is supportive of this particular plan, including environmentalists and members of the logging industry.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, told the Associated Press that protecting these birds is of “paramount importance,” but that the focus should be on protecting their habitat instead. He also raised concerns about congressional plans to make changes to Oregon’s forests that could further impact northern spotted owls.
“We remain unconvinced that this strategy, which will result in the death of thousands of barred owls will be effective, and we are deeply concerned that the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to do an inadequate job of protecting old habitat,” he told the International Business Times.
“To move forward with killing barred owls while continuing to do an inadequate job of addressing the habitat loss issues that jeopardized the spotted owl in the first place makes no sense,” he added.
Considered an indicator species that helps gauge environmental health, the northern spotted owl has been at the center of controversies for years.
They have lived in old growth forests for hundreds of years, but the trees that have provided their habitat also became a primary source of wood for logging. Disputes between the government, environmentalists and the timber industry over land use and protecting northern spotted owls have been going on for decades. The owls weren’t listed as threatened until 1990 after years of lawsuits and negotiations.
Although northern spotted owl populations have been declining for a while now due to habitat loss and fragmentation, the current presence of barred owls is believed to have exacerbated their problems. The East Coast natives are bigger, less picky about what they eat and are now pushing northern spotted owls out.
Despite criticism, the FWS is standing by it plan. Robin Bown, a federal wildlife biologist, told the LA Times that doing nothing is essentially the kiss of death for northern spotted owls.
“While some people just feel we should leave things alone, we want to take a small step at a resolution with this experiment,” said Bown.
According to the environmental assessment, the results of this experiment may lead to future decisions about barred owl management, but there are no current plans for future management and the results, whether successful or unsuccessful, won’t result in any automatic actions being taken. A final decision is expected to be made this month.
Whatever the outcome here, plans like these continue to raise ethical questions about how we weigh the value of habitat preservation and saving species, while deciding which individuals live and die, against economic development and human interests. This will no doubt continue to spur heated debates and keep making headlines as more of our natural environment disappears.
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