To save the northern spotted owl, federal authorities have listed the bird under the Endangered Species Act, set aside 7 million acres of forest for owl habitat, and imposed stiff fines on those who harm the chocolate-colored football-sized raptors.
But the spotted owl population is still in deep peril nearly 15 years after President Clinton brokered a compact to protect its old-growth habitat. So the government has hit on another approach to saving an icon of the Pacific Northwest: shooting its cousins.
Under a proposal controversial in scientific and environmental circles, federal wildlife agents in Oregon, Washington and Northern California would be allowed to use shotguns to kill hundreds of barred owls.
The larger, more aggressive barred owl, which is not native to the Northwest, has stymied recovery efforts of the meeker spotted owl in the last two decades.
The barred owls muscle the spotted owls from their habitat and eat them -- or, very occasionally, according to wildlife biologists, mate with them. The rare hybrid offspring, informally known as a “sparred owl,” has a “very strange hoot,” as one wildlife biologist put it, “sort of like a spotted owl being strangled.”
Critics say the shooting proposal (“suppression,” as it is known in government parlance) is an example of the Bush administration altering scientific findings to accommodate commercial interests -- in this case, the logging industry.
“This is clearly a shell game,” said Dominick DellaSala, an environmental scientist on the Fish and Wildlife Service Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Team, which has worked on a plan. “It is a deception to deflect the blame away from habitat destruction. That is and that remains the biggest threat to the spotted owl.”
DellaSala and at least one other member of the team say its recommendations were ignored by what DellaSala has characterized as “a secret ‘oversight committee’ ” in Washington, D.C., that deemphasized habitat protection and instead pointed to the barred owl as the greatest threat to the spotted owl’s survival.
Officials in charge of the recovery plan sharply dispute the notion that the final report was a bow to industry pressure to open more Northwest forests to timber harvesting. In this owl-versus-owl saga, they say, it is abundantly clear that the spotted owls need help, fast.
“If we don’t get this threat under control, no amount of habitat protection will save the spotted owl,” said Dave Wesley, deputy regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and director of the Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Team.
Many environmentalists concede that spotted owls may need armed federal bodyguards to survive.
But, they say, blasting away the barred owls should be part of a much larger recovery plan that includes continued protection of old-growth strands where the spotted owl breeds and nests most successfully.
The current plan, released in late April and now under federal review, “ignores both overwhelming science and plain common sense” in giving such a high priority to removing barred owls, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, Ore.
“Competition from barred owls may well need to be addressed on an interim basis until spotted owls’ populations can be returned to health,” Sallinger said at a public hearing in Portland last week.
“But unless critical habitat needs are adequately addressed, barred-owl control will be nothing more than a sad and pathetic footnote on the road to spotted owl extinction,” he said.
In a federally sanctioned experiment in Northern California a few years ago, barred owls were shot -- and, in fact, spotted owls then nested in a handful of areas. Under the current proposal, up to 576 barred owls could be shot in 18 areas across the northern half of the West Coast.
The shooting plan is strongly endorsed by many in the timber industry, and it doesn’t seem to bother some people in southwestern Oregon, many of whom specifically blame the spotted owl controversy for decimating logging jobs in the region.
“Actually, if you’re talking about owls, I’m really in favor of the ‘Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out’ approach,” said Ed Bates, 56, a former logger. “I’d gladly sign up to take part in this myself.”
Others are less harsh, but a common sentiment here at the edge of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is that people’s welfare has taken a back seat to that of the spotted owl.
“From what I can see, the human being has come in second to an owl in all this,” said Fred Krauss, 75, former owner of Rough & Ready Lumber Co., one of the few surviving sawmills in the area.
“Well, we’re kind of an endangered species too,” he said. “If you have a wife and two little kids and a home you’re paying for, and then just because of an owl you lose your house and your job, well, that’s pretty bad.”
Like many people here, Krauss is deeply proud of logging. He even wrote a poem several years ago about it, which he recites to visitors.
“I never climbed the Himalayas, I never sailed the Seven Seas,” it begins. “But with these two hands and a saw, I cut a million trees.”
Charles Brumbaugh, 61, a retired splicing technician for a telephone company, said that if barred owls proved stronger than spotted owls, so be it.
“If an eagle sees the fish, he takes it,” Brumbaugh said. “If your time’s up, your time’s up. That’s what’s happening to the spotted owl. So I’d say, let nature take its course.”
Environmental scientists say evolutionary argument hardly applies here: Human interference -- decades of clear-cuts and other widespread logging -- first caused the spotted owl’s decline.
The barred owls, which are native to the East Coast and began arriving here in significant numbers about two decades ago, are simply more adapted to the human-altered environment.
“We have put the spotted owl on a trajectory toward extinction,” said Sallinger of the Audubon Society. “We have an ethical imperative not to allow species to expire because of activity we initiated.”
With proper habitat protections in place, Sallinger said, culling the barred-owl population might be acceptable.
“Yes, there are circumstances under which we might support killing barred owls,” he said. “It’s obviously a very painful decision. Barred owls are very beautiful birds, too. But we recognize that the barred owl is a real threat to the spotted owl.”