Northern Spotted Owls have been the butt of anti-environmentalist jokes and arguments for years now. In an attempt to save the species from extinction, the government halted construction projects, which led to job losses. Opponents decried and mocked the Canadian government’s choice to prioritize the big-eyed, bashful birds’ survival over jobs. Bumper stickers appeared reading “Kill a Spotted Owl–Save a Logger” and “I Like Spotted Owls–Fried.” “The listing of the spotted owl as a threatened species led to a virtual ban on logging in many older federal forests, inspiring angry lawsuits and threats of violence by rural loggers against owl advocates,” reports The New York Times.
So after all the hue and cry and sacrifice, today the species should be thriving, right?
Public environmental officials blame the failure on another species: the barred owl. Barred owls are bigger than spotted owls, have a broader diet, and are taking over their territory. “‘Barred owls have invaded all spotted owl habitat,’ said Ian Blackburn, the provincial government’s spotted owl recovery co-ordinator.”
The barred owls don’t just take over habitat. They also kill male spotted owls and breed with females, which is rather troubling. So is a keystone of the Canadian government’s grand plan for addressing the problem: to shoot some barred owls dead and relocate others. The government has relocated 73 birds already and authorized the killing of 39 more. And here I thought Canada didn’t have the death penalty.
Shooting one species to save another is not a good long-term plan, some biologists say. More barred owls will move in or be born to take advantage of the favorable habitat. “You would have to shoot barred owls forever” if that were the strategy for saving spotted owls, said a Forest Service biologist.
The other possibility is that the plan will work, and the reduction in the barred owls’ numbers will cascade down through their food chain, affecting their prey as well as other fauna and flora. “The spotted owl is the icon,”¯ the Forest Service biologist said, “but there are a lot of other players in terms of species and protecting biodiversity in these forests.”¯
The government has another trick up its sleeve: a captive-breeding program for spotted owls. Sadly, it is doing less breeding and more killing.
Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee says the program is futile. Of ten spotted owls captured from the wild for the breeding program, seven died. Of three eggs incubated at a breeding facility, two didn’t make it. These are not promising signs for captive breeding, which brings us back to habitat.
The Wilderness Committee managed to obtain government documents about the owls. They reveal what to me is the most shocking part of this sad story: much of the land that the government worked so hard to preserve wasn’t even appropriate habitat for spotted owls.
The biggest problem is that despite government efforts, the spotted owls’ habitat of old-growth trees has continued to shrink. If the spotted owls have nowhere to live, it doesn’t much matter how many barred owls there are hanging around keen on rape and murder or how many captive-bred owls are introduced. The spotted owls will go homeless and hungry. Decades of attempted conservation in Canada will come to naught if the spotted owl dies, as will our confidence that if we just do something, if we raise the money and shout loud enough, we can save an endangered species.
Sometimes there may be nothing we can do.