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Posts Tagged ‘US Fish and Wildlife’

North Spotted Owl (Credit: Wikipedia)

North Spotted Owl (Credit: Wikipedia)

Northern spotted owls have had a tough time of it in recent decades. Just when one threat to the species begins to decline, it seems, another is right there to take its place.

In 1990 the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This spurred a long and heated controversy between loggers in the area, who had built a booming industry around the region’s old growth forest, and conservationists, who viewed the owl as an “indicator species.” The divide grew when, in 1994, Clinton signed the Northwest Forest Plan, which was designed to protect northern spotted owls and other species that depend on old growth forest. Although the plan permitted logging at a sustainable level, its implementation slashed logging on national forest by 90 percent.

While the debate has settled as the northwest slowly rebounded from the loss of its timber industry, the northern spotted owl population remains threatened, and is in fact declining. New threats to the species have prevented the owl from rebounding. Climate change has led to further loss of habitat; winters and hot summers have contributed to a rise in insect outbreaks, fires, and disease in the old growth forests. The other main threat to the northern spotted owl: the barred owl.

Originally located in eastern forests across the US and Canada, barred owls have been making their way west, and now overlap all of the northern spotted owl’s range. The barred owl is larger and more resilient than the northern spotted owl, and is increasing competition in the northern spotted owl’s already scarce habitat. As pressures from a shrinking habitat and aggressive competing species increase, northern spotted owl populations continue to decline, as much as 7.4 percent per year.

Barred Owl (Credit: Wikipedia)

Barred Owl (Credit: Wikipedia)

Wildlife officials with the US Fish and Wildlife Department have developed a four-year experimental plan to kill barred owls in select areas of northern spotted owl range. The purpose of this experiment is to see if northern spotted owls rebound in areas where barred owls are less—or no longer—prevalent. Each area will be split in half. One half of each area will serve as a control area, where no barred owls will be killed. The other half will permit barred owl killing. These test areas will occur mainly on tribal and federal land, and will be located in northern California; in the Cascade range near Cle Elum, Washington; within the Oregon Coast range; and in the Klamath Mountains. The test areas will encompass 1,207 square miles, equaling about 0.05 percent of the northern spotted owl’s habitat.

Officials are not yet sure whether government or publicly contracted hunters will be tasked with hunting the barred owls, or how the killing will occur and what regulations will be set. Any hunting of the owls will require a special permit under the Migratory Bird Act, since barred owls are considered a nongame species.

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This experiment brings up several ethical dilemmas. Some opponent’s of the plan believe that officials are intervening in a natural process. If the barred owl naturally made its way into northern spotted owl habitat, the effects of that should, critics argue, be left to nature to sort out.  However, according to the FWS, it’s likely that  “the barred owl’s westward movement was caused by changes to the environment in the Great Plains as people increasingly settled there and dramatically altered the landscape.” So, how ‘natural’ is the barred owl’s presence in northern spotted owl range?

Further, we have to ask: would the northern spotted owl be better prepared for the barred owl’s invasion if the northern spotted owl population hadn’t declined due to logging? Or, if there was more available habitat, would the two species be able to co-exist in such a way that barred owls wouldn’t threaten northern spotted owls?

We are left with another pressing question: What is the ultimate cause of of this issue? Is the barred owl invasion an ultimate cause of the northern spotted owl’s decline? Or is the barred owl’s effect on northern spotted owl populations the result of the ultimate cause: habitat loss? Furthermore, if barred owls are an indirect cause to the decline in northern spotted owl, how would killing them be an effective long-term management strategy for preserving the northern spotted owl?

Of the proposed experiment, the FWS says:

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified competition from barred owls as one of two main threats to the northern spotted owl’s continued survival (habitat loss is the other). We are currently proposing an experiment to test the effects of removing barred owls from certain areas of spotted owl habitat to see if it would benefit spotted owls.  Removal of some members of a common species to protect or recover a rare species, while not unheard of, is not a typical management practice, and it is one we propose only in the most serious conservation situations.”

It looks like this experiment is putting the cart before the horse. I didn’t see any FWS studies examining the potential for northern spotted owls to naturally rebound if barred owls are eliminated from their habitat. Will population numbers still suffer as forest fires, fragmentation, and disease continue to reduce habitat? Is the naturally-occurring presence of barred owls a sign that nature is letting the northern spotted owl run its course? Or, conversely, if barred owls were pushed westward by human population growth, are we ethically responsible for managing the effects of their migration into northwest old growth forests?

Of course, I don’t have answers to these questions. I am only compelled to ask them. Wildlife and environmental management is rife with ethical debates such as this one, and the ways in which we protect and preserve nature will continue to require modification as the human population expands. Knowing when—and how—to intervene, or when to step aside, will only become more challenging.

Links:

Wildlife Officials Move Ahead With Killing Barred Owls

AP Newsbreak: Feds to start shooting barred owls

Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Information Site: Barred Owl Threat

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