Guest Author - Carrie McLaughlin
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to give a final ruling this month on the “experimental” government killing of almost four thousand Barred Owls (BO) in the Pacific Northwest in order to purportedly halt the decline of the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO). Simultaneously, local timber companies are seeking permits to cut down the old-growth forest trees that the Northern Spotted Owls prefer for nesting and raising their young, and which sustain the NSO’s food chain.
Is this good sense? Is it even good science?
The Northern Spotted Owls have been listed as a threatened species since 1990. The closely related Barred Owls have ingressed increasingly into the NSO’s traditional habitat - primarily through Canada where that government decimated the old-growth forest, resulting in near-extirpation of the NSO and a naturally expansive movement by the BO. USFWS has now sounded a clarion call of alarm over this immigration, exclaimed that Barred Owls are the most important threat to the Spotted Owls’ existence, and has declared the 'final solution'.
But, back to the science.
In his November 1990 range study of the BO and the NSO in Oregon, Dr. Robert Vincent states that “Rarely does competition alone among continental species result in extinction (Mayr 1965, Frankel and Soule, 1981, Soule 1983)... What may be viewed as competition could well be a direct consequence of environmental change.” (Vincent, 1990, pp. 29-31) If the ecological tension of sharing territories is not a primary factor, what then could it be?
Could it be that avian diseases such as malaria may be causing the Spotted Owls’ decline of 3 % per year? Has this been studied? If so, by whom? And how recently? Where is the data?
Canada has been killing barred owls for years - to no avail. The USFWS claims that when Barred Owls are removed, Spotted Owls reappear immediately. How likely is that? Could it not be that under the presumed constraints of the Barred Owls’ presence, the NSO has become more efficient at utilizing its habitat? Operating undercover, so to speak? Since the NSO is proven to be reluctant to call in the BO’s vicinity, how do we know what the NSO population numbers really are?
The USFWS allegedly claims that they cannot find any states willing to accept relocation of Barred Owls if they are trapped and transported rather than killed. Is that your home state? Some states have seen an unhappy decline of the Barred Owl - to the point that they have been listed as a ‘threatened species’.
Since Spotted Owls have been known to mimic BOs, and visual confirmation would be attempted in the dark, how can we be assured that NSOs will not be inadvertently killed?
As there is no such thing as a finite number of Barred Owls currently present in the target areas (no one knows what the population numbers are), and since immigration from other areas will admittedly continue - according to all parties - how is this lethal “experiment” valid scientifically, and how will it protect NSOs? If not, how then will the mounting pile of Barred Owl bodies ever be validated as righteous?
Where in the Draft Environmental Impact Study has the inescapably devastating factor of the US Forest Service setting fire to old-growth habitats occupied by the Northern Spotted Owl been addressed as a likely cause of NSO decline?
The USFWS opens the door in the Draft EIS to state that old-growth logging in the “experimental’ areas could resume after completion of the “study”. Is it possible that the increasing focus on a native North American species, the Barred Owl - as an imminent threat to the existence of the Northern Spotted Owl - is in fact a poorly devised attempt to re-frame the debate about the logging of a treasured national resource - old-growth forest? Could this not be a case of the same song, second verse of Birds vs. Big Bucks?
Is it not just as likely that even larger forest reserves could make the difference between NSO population decline and its eventual stabilization - along with an ironclad resolve to prevent further reduction of the existing, presumably protected, old-growth forest?
The Barred Owl is a native species fully protected under the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. If the USFWS forges forward and finalizes the DEIS, it still must obtain a permit. Their permit application will be submitted for approval to the Pacific Region 1 Office in Portland, Oregon. That phone number is 503-872-2715. The Division of Migratory Bird Management in Arlington, Virginia actually determines the national policies for issuing permits. Their number is 703-358-1714.