Killing owls in the name of saving owls
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2010:
PORTLAND, Oregon– Public comment on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service proposal to shoot barred owls to see if killing them helps
spotted owl recovery closes on January 11, 2010.
Barred owls would be shot in spotted owl study areas near Cle
Elum, Washing-ton; the Oregon Coast Range mountains; and the Klamath
mountains of southwestern Oregon. The experiment would repeat on a
larger scale a 2005 study in which seven barred owls were shot in
habitat recently vacated by spotted owls in northern Calif-ornia.
After the larger and more aggressive barred owls were killed,
spotted owls returned. The California study became the rationale
for a rewrite of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan produced in mid-2008
by appointees of former U.S. President George W. Bush. Blaming
barred owls and wildfires rather than logging for the decline of
spotted owls, the Bush administration plan reduced the designated
critical habitat for spotted owls by 1.6 million acres, and would
have increased timber sales in the region fivefold.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken on July 1, 2009 struck
down the Bush administration rules change that allowed the reduction
of critical habitat. On the same day the journal Conservation
Biology published a study based on satellite photos showing that
Pacific Northwest forests are maturing into old growth suitable for
spotted owls at from five to 14 times the rate of loss to wildfire.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew the Bush administration
rewrite of the Northwest Forest Plan on July 16, 2009.
But the plan to shoot barred owls has proceeded, with final
approval expected late in 2010. Shooting barred owls could buy time
for the timber industry by delaying further restrictions on logging
to protect spotted owls. If spotted owls die out anyway, the timber
industry also benefits, since habitat not occupied by spotted owls
cannot be deemed critical recovery habitat.
Spotted owls were added to the U.S. endangered species in
June 1990, after 17 years of studies, litigation, and
cabinet-level intervention in the endangered species designation
process. In almost 20 years since, the spotted owl population has
continued to decline at about 4% per year.
Spotted owls live almost entirely by hunting red tree voles,
who inhabit mainly old growth. Barred owls, however, hunt many
species. As spotted owls decline, barred owls take over the
habitat. Known only east of the Rocky Mountains when the earliest
range maps for North American birds were produced, barred owls were
first recorded in Washington state in 1973–the same year that the
U.S. Endangered Species Act was passed. Spotted owls were among the
first species nominated for endangered status.
“Even if we were able to restore old growth habitat
instantaneously,” Portland Audubon Society conservation director Bob
Sallinger told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “lethal control of barred owls may be
necessary to have any hope of recovering spotted owls.” Sallinger
acknowledged that spotted owls may be jeopardized chiefly by climate
change: the warmer, dryer Pacific Northwest habitat of today is no
longer the habitat that spotted owls and their prey, red tree voles,
evolved to occupy. In that case, spotted owls may be doomed, no
matter what is done to save them.
“I don’t think this is a matter of scapegoating the barred
owl,” Sallinger said. “I don’t know anybody in the conservation or
animal welfare communities who views the idea of killing barred owls
as anything other than horrific. However with spotted owls basically
extirpated from British Columbia and on their way out in Washington,”
he added, “I think we would be remiss to simply ignore that the
influx of barred owls may hasten extinction long before our habitat
recovery efforts have any chance of being successful.
“That does not mean that we ultimately support lethal
control,” Sallinger finished. “It just means that we need to take a
hard look at the implications.”
Responded ANIMAL PEOPLE president Kim Bartlett, “From an
animal rights perspective, it is absolutely unethical to kill
animals of one species to save another more endangered species,
whether the plan is likely to work or not, and whether or not the
possible extinction of a species is caused by human activity or more
“The truth is that the life of a starling–a species long
persecuted by conservationists–or a chicken in a factory farm is of
the same consequence to the starling or the chicken as the life of a
spotted owl is to the spotted owl, and all three birds have the same
capacity for suffering,” Bartlett continued. “The whole concept of
‘endangered species’ has been detrimental to animal rights and
welfare,” she said, “by giving rise to the idea that it is
acceptable to kill or exploit animals as long as they are not members
of an immediately endangered species. A ‘species’ is just a
category; it is as an individual that all creatures experience
physical sensation or psychological states, and it is as an
individual that all creatures die, even when an entire species
passes with the death of the last of its kind.”