Barred Owl

The Face of Evil?

Recently, over at 10000 Birds, Charlie touched on the controversial subject of killing introduced and invasive species. This is a conservation strategy that raises ethical concerns on the individual and population level, and often involves unexpected wrinkles, as when the invaders turns out to be threatened themselves. On the other hand, it has also saved some species that might otherwise have been lost forever.

Another problem is that “invasive” and “introduced”, though highly overlapping concepts, are not perfectly congruent. While “people did it” vs. “it’s natural” is, at heart, a false dichotomy, removing animals that were directly placed in a new region by human activity – released pets, stowaway snakes, etc. – tends to be viewed in the lens of correcting an error or setting right what once went wrong. “Natural” range expansions carried out by animals mainly under their own steam, however, are often welcomed or celebrated – even when humans have significantly contributed with assists in the form of new habitat, food sources, etc. (See Northern Cardinal and Cattle Egret). It’s an emotional reaction, but not necessarily a wrong one – after all, expanding to take advantage of a changed environment is a time-honored evolutionary tactic, and if there’s one thing that can’t be denied, it’s that humans are changing the environment. Attempting to set in stone a certain range as forever correct for a species would be equally artificial.

Now these perceptions of good and evil, natural and unnatural, are colliding in the ugly case of Barred Owl vs. Spotted Owl. Formerly, these two closely related species were separated by the treeless zone in the midst of the continent (a zone which some scholars argue was in part created, or perpetuated, by Native Americans using fire as a tool to maintain bison habitat) and therefore had but few occasions to come into conflict. Now the Barred Owls have used forests encouraged by fire suppression as a bridge to move west. Both species are dependent on fairly large chunks of forest to maintain their livelihoods, with one small but key difference; Spotted Owls are more attuned, especially in the northern parts of their range, to old-growth forest in particular, whereas the Barred Owl is able to get along with fairly young trees. The Barred Owl is also prone to be more aggressive, killing Spotted Owls when they compete for territory (as well as occasionally hybridizing with them.)

In light of all this, federal biologists are considering an action that has unfortunate echoes of the old-school: controlling (that is, killing) Barred Owls in areas where they come into conflict with the Spotted.

The Spotted Owl is rare and precious; the Barred Owl is common and disposable. Or, the Barred Owl is vigorous and successful; the Spotted Owl is feeble and too picky for the new environment in which it finds itself, so an evolutionary failure. Neither set of value judgments tells the truth about either species, or gives us a simple right answer on what to think about these measures.

I don’t know what is right, but I do know what is wrong – the constraints within which the Fish and Wildlife Service has been driven to consider this desperate measure. Because there’s another party to the Spotted Owl’s destruction – one that we all know very well: habitat destruction.

Controlling barred owls was a central strategy of the Bush administration’s overhaul of the spotted owl recovery plan to make way for more logging.

The insane, unsustainable management strategies of the timber industry have held the Spotted Owls hostage for a long time, and now they are using the Barred Owl as a scapegoat in a vague parallel to the way they once used their own underpaid and exploited employees in the same role: someone’s going to get the shaft, but you can bet it won’t be timber company executives. “Let’s you and him fight” is their favorite game.

So this I know: if the choice is between less logging in the old-growth forests and killing damn near any species at all, it’s definitely the timber industry’s turn to take the hit. And the timber industry’s role to make good the loss to their employees that’s bound to occur, not because tree-huggers are so darn unreasonable, but because they themselves have chosen to enact a tragedy of the commons and force a situation of sudden decline rather than opt for slower growth and a sustainable business model. After all, these same people would be abruptly out of work should all the big, old trees go for pulp rather than into a preserve.

It’s not everyone else’s job to keep them in business by giving up our natural heritage, our public lands, and in the case of the Barred Owls, our life’s blood.

(Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson under CC Attribution-Sharealike 3.0)

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