Barred versus Spotted Owls: Humans in No Position to Contradict Nature

Prudent intervention in nature is tolerable if it remedies the dire consequences of injudicious human activities.  What is intolerable is killing one animal to save another when there is no proof that the strategy will work.

This fall, federal wildlife officials are planning to exterminate barred owls that dominate territory once popular with fragile northern spotted owls.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's diabolical method: lure barred owls by propagating recordings of other barred owls, then shoot the birds to smithereens.

The feds are screwing up in one agency after another.  Now we're supposed to trust them to hunt a stealthy, nocturnal animal in fog-laden forests in the fall.  From a distance, the targeted owl looks a bit like its protected cousin; if an impatient trigger-happy fed is able to get closer, it may be irresistible to take a potshot at a hybrid owl, which actually carries spotted owl genes.

The northern spotted owl is the scourge of the timber industry.  To try to protect the weaklings, a federal court ruling in 1991 sequestered large swaths of Northwest woods from logging.  Though timber-harvesting on federal land dropped 90 percent, northern spotted owls are still scarce -- now it's up to nature.  To be blunt, northern spotted owls are being conquered by tougher barred owls.

We're worthy stewards of the land when we prudently manage our natural resources while protecting an endangered species.  But nature remains sovereign over natural selection, and we're not wise enough to intercede by eviscerating one magnificent bird to salvage one with a spotty future.

And barred owls are magnificent: with compelling brown eyes and impressive striped plumage, they glide imperiously through our enchanted, mysterious forests.  One splendid specimen occasionally perches on a tree outside our house.  Even before its beguiling hoot, we know it's holding court in the woods due to the commotion in its dominion.

The better angels of our nature mollycoddle endangered species like pandas by nurturing them in reserves with breeding programs and replenishing their bamboo supplies.  This is nice; indeed, it's altruistic compared to impinging on natural selection by killing one species to save one less adaptable.

Discouraging specific California sea lions from gorging on salmon in the Columbia River may be justifiable human interference because the building of dams precipitated an unnatural balance in nature.  Also, those salmon do taste pretty good, and their harvesting provides jobs.  Nevertheless, conservation efforts should be circumspect, and shooting barred owls is a fool's errand, even for the feds. 

Other attempts to restore original ecosystems are fraught with unintended consequences, and hardly precedent-setting.  For example, feral pigs were slaughtered on California's Channel Islands because, indirectly, they were supposedly accelerating the decline of the Islands' native foxes.

The pigs were brought to the islands in the 1850s and eventually escaped their domesticity to become voracious foragers.  Golden eagles took a liking to the piglets...and then developed a taste for the foxes.  Bald eagles may have kept golden eagles at bay, but they died out due to DDT poisoning.  Even after persecuting the pigs, golden eagles were still "relocated" to save the foxes.

The Channel Islands' restoration was widely criticized, and its convoluted implementation reminds us of the folly of our selfish sense of aesthetics.  One of several distinctions from our owl dilemma is that the native status of the foxes was a key determinant in the controversial restoration of the original ecosystem and cultural heritage.

An impressive bird like the barred owl, however, majestically swoops from one habitat in the Great Plains to another farther west; it's the vicissitudes of a complex organism extending its natural range in a dynamic environment.  Soaring across America's beautiful and spacious skies, barred owls descended into the Pacific Northwest's lush forests in the 1950s.  They were not imported by humans, but are now at least third-generation.  In nature's inexorable course, they have established native status even as northern spotted owls have attained endangered status.

We've already decimated the logging industry and uprooted many livelihoods to help save the northern spotted owl's habitat.  If they're still sparse, then put it down to "survival of the fittest."

Unfit species sometimes become extinct -- that's nature's will. But there's a twist in the feathered tale: barred owls crossbreed with spotted owls (when not attacking them).  Oftentimes the hybrid offspring are fertile; in essence, the dominant barred owl is ensuring that some spotted owl genes do a "fitter" form.

So hoot the heck are we to infringe on nature's prerogative?  Hoot in their right mind would trust federal officials, stumbling around our forests with guns, a kill quotient, and a deadline, to discern bad barred owls from government-favored weaklings?  Our government just doesn't seem to celebrate success, whether in business or nature.  Unfortunately, despite numerous attempts to save it, the northern spotted owl may be the Solyndra of the natural world. 

It was through providence rather than human rationality that we escaped the madness of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War.  I'm still not sure we've acquired the wisdom to master our own long-term survival, let alone contradict nature's dictates to the hauntingly beautiful barred owls.

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