Pickin’ Sides in the Evolutionary Struggle- Good Idea? Good Investment?

From NPR, here.

Here’s my question: if we can’t afford/ don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to kill them all, why are we killing any? Intellectual curiosity? Is that a good enough reason?

Killing One Owl Species To Save Another

by Lauren Sommer

A female northern spotted owl in California. Spotted owls are losing habitat to invasive barred owls, a species originally from the eastern U.S.
Enlarge National Park Service

A female northern spotted owl in California. Spotted owls are losing habitat to invasive barred owls, a species originally from the eastern U.S.
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June 12, 2011 from KQED

Spotted owls are on the decline despite two decades of work to bring them back. So, later this month, wildlife officials are releasing a new plan to protect the owls, and it includes a controversial new approach: eliminating their cousins.

In a dense forest near Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco, National Park Service ecologist Bill Merkle plays a recording of a spotted owl in hopes of hearing from a real one.

“I think they’re just probably 50 or 60 feet up there,” he says.

Northern spotted owls became famous in the 1990s, when the federal government set aside millions of acres of forest to protect them. That stoked an epic battle between loggers and wildlife groups over their habitat. Since then, spotted owls haven’t come back. Biologists believe that’s due to an invasion of barred owls.

Barred owls take over spotted owl territory and in some cases even attack them. They have an advantage because they eat a wider variety of prey. In places like western Washington, the spotted owl population has been cut in half since the barred owl showed up.

“It’s a troubling picture for the spotted owls,” Merkle says.

Originally from the eastern U.S., barred owls invaded spotted owl territory in Washington state decades ago and, Merkle says, they’ve moved down the coast ever since.

“The barred owl is a little larger,” he says. “It’s a little more aggressive.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to deal with this by “permanent removal,” says Robin Bown, a biologist with the agency. “We’re going to look at all potential opportunities, but the most humane way to do it is to shoot them.”

Bown says the agency plans to eliminate barred owls from a few study areas to see if the spotted owls there do better. And yes, she says, shooting the barred owls will raise a few eyebrows.

“It’s a difficult concept, to say I’m going to kill one species to try to save another species,” she says. “But it’s also something that, in some cases, we need to do.”

Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, says shooting owls isn’t a long-term solution.

“To try to control barred owls across a large region would be incredibly expensive, and you’d have to keep doing it forever because if you ever stopped, they would begin to come back into those areas,” he says.

That’s why, Forsman says, it’s looking pretty dismal for the spotted owl.

“I think all we can really do is try our best to provide [a] habitat for spotted owls and in the long run, we’re just going to have to let the two species work it out,” he says.

This also reminds me of a piece in New Scientist last September about BFFs (that is, Black-Footed Ferrets) that also mentions wolves Conservation and compassion by Marc Bekoff. Check it out.

Here’s a quote:

The guiding principles of compassionate conservation are: do no intentional harm; respect all life; treat all individuals with respect and dignity; and tread lightly when stepping into the lives of animals.

7 thoughts on “Pickin’ Sides in the Evolutionary Struggle- Good Idea? Good Investment?”

  1. Forsman is probably right. Such an approach can make sense if the population is geographically isolated– invasive mammals on an island, for example.

  2. This was fascinating to read as it has so many similarities to the problems forest/woodland managers are experiencing in some European countries because of the grey squirrel. The Grey was introduced from North America to Britain and has systematically driven the native Red Squireel further and further north in the country and squeezed it into a decreasing area of habitat. The Grey is more aggresive and is resistant to a pox, that the red isn’t, so there is no competition.

    As in your Owl example, when the invasive pest is attractive and endearing to the public, it’s management is even more complex. Here in Britain a clever campaign has focussed on restoring the native red squirrel, rather than destroying the invasive Grey squirrel. This is the same thing effectively, but millions of miles apart in terms of public relations.

    Enjoy the blog by the way


  3. I don’t know about now but, back in the late 80’s, German forestry students had to be skilled with a rifle as part of their curriculum. They were expected to have to manage the wildlife, sometimes by bullets. I had the pleasure of meeting a young German woman forestry student, who seemed to be a true “Belle of the Woods”. Not at all a “girly-girl”.

    Before the owl situation is all over with, I’ll bet the northern goshawks will have a part to play. Are they big enough to take down a barred owl? I’ll bet some can. They can be fearless going after prey bigger than them. Will the goshawks prefer to bag spotted owls instead of barred owls? That could be a key, as well, since they share the same nesting habitat.

  4. I’m not certain but I don’t believe the barred owls were ever transplanted. I think they made it to Pacific Northwest on their own accord. So they are they an invasive native species?

    • Yes it seems that they got there on their own accord as habitat was altered by logging. It appears that they are better adapted to the altered coastal forests as well. If coastal forests could ever be returned to their previous condition, the spotted owls might better compete with the barred owls. That’s not very likely, with climate change and other factors. To find out if removal works would be a very expensive and long term experiment.

      Lethal control of cowbirds in Michigan has proven to be an effective way to improve Kirtland’s warbler breeding success. The cowbird is a species that has greatly expanded its range due to agricultural practices. These control efforts are relatively small scale and localized though. If sufficient suitable habitat for Kirtland’s warblers can be maintained through logging (large clear-cuts), prescribed fire, and wildfire, the control efforts might someday be unnecessary.

      • I understand that it wasn’t logging that brought the barred owls. It was fire suppression that allowed trees across the Canadian plains to thrive and produce pockets of suitable habitat for the barred owls, drawing them across Canada to their western forests. I think we are stuck with these owls and their problems, despite the ESA’s “protections”. Sadly, blaming loggers continues to promote a lack of trust and more gridlock, as “protected” forests die, rot and burn.

        On a related note, no one seems to be talking about the losses of Mexican spotted owl critical habitat in Arizona due to the Wallow Fire. Nope, nothing to see here, move along please!!


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