The spotted owl has been the poster child for conservation efforts for two decades now. In America, spotted owls have become almost synonymous with the phrase “endangered species.”
The cultural ubiquity of efforts to save the spotted owl have a lot to do with the fact that those efforts hinged on stymying the logging industry in the northwest. The logging industry is rightfully a favorite villain of the conservationist movement.
The level of dedication to this particular species adds weight to the debate among animal conservationists and environmental ethicists about the proposed plan to “manage” barred owl populations in the habitats previously occupied by spotted owls.
The barred owl is flourishing in areas that have been vacated by spotted owls because barred owls are slightly larger, more aggressive and less picky about their diet and nesting places. Spotted owls are notoriously finicky about their diet and nesting. Barred owls have been moving west slowly for over a century but it’s only been in the past several decades that their populations have exploded in the west and begun to seriously compete with spotted owls.
One expert, Blade Murden, characterized the fight as between a specialist and a generalist, and a generalist is always going to win that fight.
The federal government has been disappointed with its previous efforts to save the spotted owl and think that competition from the barred owl may be the biggest remaining factor keeping the species from bouncing back.
New federal plans now call in technical and polite terms for the “management” of barred owls, which means the “removal” of over a thousand of these birds in northwest habitats previously inhabited by the spotted owl, in hopes that it will return and flourish.
The decision to kill one species to allow another to flourish is already a hotly debated issue, even when the species being killed is an invasive species, but it’s very complicated when the animal – as in this case – is a native species and not an invasive one.
There is as much debate about whether or not the plan will even work as there is about whether the plan is ethical. Killing barred owls in at least one test area did result in spotted owls returning to nest, but it isn’t certain that the results will be equally effective in all areas. There is also concern that the plan may require barred owls to be shot year after year to keep their population low enough so as not to threaten the spotted owl.
This plan would be horrific and unethical even if it were guaranteed to work. But we’re planning to slaughter a thousand or so birds of one kind in the hopes that it might save another kind of bird. It’s true that humans were responsible for pushing spotted owls to the edge of extinction, but we can only be responsible for turning back the clock on the damage we’ve done.
We can’t kill animals en masse in an attempt to give a competitive edge to a bird with a superior natural rival. Competition from species has and will always exist. We can’t try to micromanage the natural forces in the wild — especially when that involves mass murder — no matter how guilty and responsible we may feel for the spotted owl’s fate.
Photo: Lip Kee