U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, meet Charles Darwin.
At the behest of the Endangered Species Act, the FWS is about to undertake an experiment that challenges a fundamental principle of biology: survival of the fittest. This fall, it plans to dispatch hunters to shoot or otherwise kill barred owls in Washington, Oregon and California forests where the northern spotted owl has been struggling to hang on.
The idea is to try killing 3,603 barred owls (a strangely precise number) to determine whether their suppression can help the endangered spotted owl recover.
We’d love to see the concept work. This region has incurred immense costs — including the jobs of thousands of timber workers — preserving what’s left of the spotted owl’s forest habitat. Since the owl was listed for ESA protection in 1990, the U.S. government has all but banned logging in federal forests, turning many timber communities into impoverished ghost towns.
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After that painful investment in the spotted owls, it would be hard to watch them fall prey to their barred cousins, interlopers from Canada and the East.
But the spotted owl could be headed toward that fate without massive human intervention (or even with it). Since the barred owl started muscling into Northwest forests 50 or so years ago, it has consistently out-competed the spotted owl. It’s bigger, breeds faster and is less finicky about what it eats.
When tough owl meets wimp owl, tough owl wins. That’s cold-eyed Darwinism, not moral injustice.
Champions of both birds blame people for the showdown. Many argue that human activity — including fire suppression and the planting of trees in the Great Plains — allowed the barred owls to cross the continent into spotted owl range.
Human culpability aside, the advance of barred owls may well be irreversible by humans. It’s a matter of practical feasibility.
This isn’t like the shooting and trapping of sea lions in the Columbia River, which helped save some endangered wild salmon from predation. Sea lions are big, and they have to swim into narrow waterways to get at concentrations of the fish. They are easy to spot and target.
Barred owls, in contrast, are mounting the equivalent of a banzai charge, swarming into spotted owl range from various directions and breeding relentlessly once they’ve broken through — even mating with the spotted owl.
Can the FWS defeat enough barred owls for enough years to keep them from overrunning the locals? It’s a brave idea, but it could amount to trying to save sand castles from an incoming tide.