Spotted Owls Redux, Again: The High Costs of Genetic Purity

Here is an editorial about spotted owl economics that has been going the rounds of a number of email networks since it was published four days ago, on May 3rd:

This was posted on Amy Ridenour’s National Center Blog, and was written by Teresa Platt, who is listed as the Director of the Environment and Enterprise Institute at the National Center for Public Policy Research. I’m guessing “right wing think tank,” by the title of the organization and Ridenour’s history, and note that Platt often blogs about topics regarding our nation’s natural resources:

I’d never read this blog before, but apparently some of my wildlife biology, range sciences, and rancher friends do — those are the circles in which this has been making the rounds, including a personal email from Platt requesting a wider distribution.

In general, I am in agreement with Platt’s thoughts – however, I think these animals are more rightly referred to as “hoot owls” (the most common type of owl in North America), rather than “wood owls.” I’m going to stick with Wikipedia on that one, until someone explains to me why they think spotted owls have been here “since the last ice age,” whereas historical evidence indicates they may have arrived just a few decades in advance of the more common striped hoot owl.

The Shameful and Painful Spotted Owl Saga: Shooting Stripes To Save Spots

By Teresa Platt

Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:20 PM

Our federal government prefers spots and is moving forward with a million-dollar-a-year plan to remove 9,000 striped owls from 2.3% of 14 million Western acres of protected spotted owl habitat. Our government is shooting wood owls with stripes to protect those with spots; to stop the stripes from breeding with the spots.

It had to come to this.

The 1990 listing of the Northern spotted owl under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) gave the bird totem status in management decisions.

It didn’t work. Spotted owls declined 40% over 25 years. Timber sales on federal government-managed lands dropped too. Oregon harvests fell from 4.9 billion board feet (1988) to less than 5%, 240 million board feet (2009). Beyond the jobs and business profits from making lumber, the Federal and County governments used to benefit from these harvests too. Harvests down: tax receipts down. Today, with cutbacks in Federal budgets and sequestration, the States are arguing about how much of your tax dollars the Federal government should give them to keep impoverished County governments afloat in timber-rich areas.

Beyond competition from barred owls, and after years of not enough logging, mega-fires fueled by too many trees now threaten spotted owl survival. An exhausted veteran of the spotted owl wars, who lives dangerously close to a federally-“managed” forest that is expected to go up in smoke soon, explained:

“You have to realize that even moving a biomass project forward takes a court battle. No salvage of dead or burned timber — it just rots. Not much thinning or fuel reduction – without a two-year court fight the Forest Service usually loses. Hell, the agency is still fighting lawsuits over the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment started in ‘97 — after four revisions and several court decisions — the Greens just keep suing until they get what they want.”

Taxpayers pay for the conservation plans, recovery plans, and action plans, many stalled in court.

Taxpayers pay for all the lawsuits too, on both sides.

Taxpayers pay the salaries and pensions of government workers fighting fire and those shooting striped owls in order to give, temporarily, an advantage to ones with spots.

All this sacrifice and the spots just keep declining and the stripes just keep on coming.

The Northern spotted owl might very well be the most expensive avian sub-species on the planet.

Invasive or just mobile?

It is theorized that striped and spotted owls were once the same species of wood owl before separating into East and West Coast versions during the last Ice Age. The common striped barred wood owl (Strix varia) has expanded its range westward, establishing itself at the expense of the less aggressive, less adaptable and smaller spotted wood owl (Strix occidentalis).

By 1909, barred owls were found in Montana. They made their way to the coast, taking up residence in British Columbia (1943), Washington (1965) and Oregon (1972).

The owls, striped or spotted, are so closely related they successfully interbreed and their fertile offspring, “sparred owls,” are hybrids that look just like spotted owls. The ESA does not protect the hybrids or their offspring so the birds are breeding their way out of the ESA!

Says Susan Haig, a wildlife ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, is exasperated by the interbreeding:

“It’s a nasty situation. This could cause the extinction of the Northern spotted owl.”

The ESA measures and categorizes, then stands steadfast against change. It is attempting, by shotgun, to separate the birds.

Are these kissing cousins from the East invasive and unwanted when they turn up out West? Or just mobile and happy to mix it up with their spotted relatives?

Whatever, and wherever, they are, striped and spotted owls are not the only birds moving around.

111 species, almost 20% of the total bird species in North America have expanded into at least one new state or province with 14 species expanding into more states and provinces than the barred owl. Changing climates and habitats are the cause of 98% of range expansions. The birds go where the food is. 38 states or provinces have gained at least 10 new bird species, some moving into a niche inhabited by an ESA-listed avian cousin.

Beyond birds, the last Ice Age killed off the North American earthworm. It’s since been reintroduced, only to be labeled — by our government scientists — as an invasive species, an undesirable. And — oh no! — earthworms are beating millipedes in the game of survival.

The policy we embrace today for striped and spotted birds can be transferred to other birds and other animals, even earthworms. If this continues, will we be reduced to digging up and killing earthworms to save millipedes?

The ESA is written thus and lawsuits by “green” groups — many paid for by our tax dollars — are herding us in this direction.

Stripes, spots, species, subspecies and stocks

In the Kingdom of Animalia, the Phylum of Chordata, the Class of Aves, the Order of Srigiformes, are two Families of birds of prey: the typical owls (Strigidae) and the barn owls (Tytonidae).

The Strigidae Family is the larger of the two Families with close to 190 species, covering nearly all terrestrial habitats worldwide, except Antarctica. 95% are forest-dwelling; 80% are found in the tropics.

The Strigdae Family includes 11 species of the genus Strix, characterized by a conspicuous facial disk and a lack of ear tufts. They are known as screech owls, wood owls, the great gray, the chaco in South America. The Ural wood owl alone boasts 15 sub-species in Europe and Northern Asia.

Within this Strix genus, in North America, the barred wood owl is broken into three sub-species (the Northern varia, georgica in Florida and helveola in Texas), with a fourth (Strix sartorii) found in Mexico.

The spotted owl species (Strix occidentalis) is broken down into three sub-species ranging across the western parts of North America and Mexico. The “threatened” Strix occidentalis lucida of Arizona and Mexico, the California spotted owl subspecies, Strix occidentalis occidentalis, and the endangered Northern spotted owl, Strix occidentalis caurina, the sub-species of greatest concern. The Northern spotted owl ranges from California, through Oregon and Washington, and up into Canada.

You can break this down even further, if you’d like, into regional sub-stocks of sub-species. If you have the time (our government does) and the money (our taxes), you can follow family units, individuals, and all the new hybrids, the result of striped owls breeding with spotted ones.

The Wise Old Owl Asks, “Who Pays?”

This summer there will be more megafires in our overstocked Western forests, often followed by mudslides from the denuded hillsides next spring.

Another “green” group will file suit to stop another timber sale or attempt to stop government workers from shooting stripes to save spots.

Since the spotted owl wars resulted in the export of so many timber jobs, Northwest timber communities contribute far fewer tax dollars to the communal treasury, so the costs of megafires, mudslides and lawsuits will be borne by Eastern and urban taxpayers. That’s where the people—and the taxes—are.

The striped owl may be relentlessly working its way West, but its costs are steadily moving East.

Teresa Platt is the Director of the Environment and Enterprise Institute at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

15 thoughts on “Spotted Owls Redux, Again: The High Costs of Genetic Purity”

  1. Wow, lots to talk about here. One point….

    “Not much thinning or fuel reduction – without a two-year court fight the Forest Service usually loses.”

    Not so, according to a January/February 2009 Journal of Forestry paper, “Litigants’ Characteristics and Outcomes in US Forest Service Land-Management Cases, 1989 to 2005,” by Beth Gambino Portuese, Robert W. Malmsheimer, Amanda Anderson, Donald Floyd, and Denise Keele.

    The authors found that the Forest Service prevails in more than 50% of cases:

    “During these 17 years, parties opposing the US Forest Service won 203 (21.4%) cases and lost 480 (50.6%) cases. Forty (4.2%) cases were withdrawn by the plaintiff(s) before judges made decisions on the cases’ merits, and 226 (23.8%) cases were settled.”

    The win, lose, or draw rates may have been different since 2005, but I’d bet not much.

  2. It is hard to imagine being both polite and succinct in substantively responding to a viewpoint that hinges on variously ridiculing or ignoring basic concepts of biodiversity.

    • Kevin: I think it’s definitely possible to be polite and succinct when discussing “basic concepts of biodiversity”; you’re probably right, though, when it comes to “ridiculing” anything.

      Personally, I think it is better to get your thoughts out there as clearly as possible, even when others might construe them as somewhat rude and/or rambling.

      How about starting with a brief list of instances where Platt ridicules concepts of biodiversity, and another short list of instances where she ignores those same concepts. You wouldn’t necessarily have to be polite to make your points, and the lists would be, by definition, succinct.

      Then others will have an idea of what you are talking about, and we can discuss specifics.

      • That sounds like a really good strategy, Bob, thanks. I’m not sure if I have time to respond point by point, but I do appreciate your thoughtful approach! I’ll squeeze something in if I can.

  3. I love it when Jack Abramoff’s co-conspirators clothe themselves as wildlife biology experts. But, maybe I’m just jealous of the husband-wife team that rakes in over $450,000 annually running this conservative think (sic) tank.

    Anyway . . . where was I? Oh, yes, the spotted owl. Teresa says that listing the owl “didn’t work” because owls have “declined 40% over 25 years.” But, that’s what the government’s scientists predicted and called for in the Northwest Forest Plan. The NFP’s thesis is continued owl population declines for about 100 years while young forests in late-successional reserves recover to an old-growth-like status. The government’s owl plan, regardless of whether one likes it or not, is working as predicted.

    The key demographic question posed in the early 90s is whether sufficient spotted owls will still be around to enjoy their predicted recovery 100 years from now. I suppose our grandkids can reflect upon how the experiment worked out. In the meantime, contrary to Teresa’s Fox News-like polemic, everything is going according to the plan.

    • Andy: No, everything is not going “according to the plan.” Spotted owls are breeding with their cousins when they get the chance, rural counties are going bankrupt, rural families have been devastated, and record amounts of “spotted owl habitat” have been going up in flames the past 20 years — and left to rot (or reburn) in place. It’s a real mess out there, and I’ve got the photographs to prove it.

      What “plan” were you referring to? And what were its stated objectives? Maybe I missed something these past 30 years — I’ve never seen these predictions anywhere associated with any plan regarding spotted owls and their habitats. No matter what the original intent and speculations, the costs have been exorbitant and the “outcomes” nothing but discouraging (to be polite).

      Also, how did Fox News, Jack Abramoff and $450,000 enter this discussion? Or did I miss something in Platt’s posting, too?

      • As the resident geneticist, I guess I have to weigh in here…

        Generally, sexual reproduction is a good thing in terms of increasing genetic diversity (say compared to clonal reproduction). So organisms having sex with organisms that are divergent from them simply increases diversity.

        Organisms diverge and hybridize, that is the “natural” dance of dynamic diversity (I made that alliteration up)..that helps species survive with changing environments, competitors, diseases, etc.

        Humans judge that some species are more valuable than others. But survival in the environment is an inexorable metric of success. We don’t have enough bucks to push back evolution in the end.

        Humans can invest in promoting the delicate at the expense of the robust, but it seems to me that the robust will always, and have always won, and in fact it is natural for them to win.

        Of course, we are one of the more robust species ourselves (although as Haldane said, God has an “inordinate fondness for beetles”) so are we attempting cosmic payback for our own robustness?

        Maybe I am over-thinking this, as our spring snowstorms have been replaced by spring rainstorms.

      • “Spotted owls are breeding with their cousins when they get the chance” [it rarely happens.

        “rural counties are going bankrupt” [because they failed to see the writing on the wall and refused to plan for the day when old growth liquidation would provide their bread and butter]

        “rural families have been devastated” [by the boom-bust logging industry both before and after the spotted owl controversy. Many government programs have helped people who were willing make the transition to new jobs.]

        “record amounts of ‘spotted owl habitat’ have been going up in flames the past 20 years” [even with the chart-busting Biscuit fire, mature forests are still being recruited faster than they are being lost to fire, and if you look at private land logging, there is still more habitat being removed by logging than fire]

        • Thanks, Tree: “rarely happens” does not mean “incapable.” Inter-racial breeding was far more uncommon among humans 200 years ago than it is now. The fact is that these animals can interbreed and produce viable young, and are among the most common owls in North America. If these birds actually fit some kind of “evolutionary niche” in our forests, does it makes sense to spend millions of dollars shooting the most robust members? And if that is really the smart thing to do, couldn’t it be done a whole lot better and cheaper by simply establishing a bounty on the stripes?

          You are wrong about the counties. There was no logical reason 20 years ago for them to assume that logging would be abruptly halted on federal lands and that they would be forced to subsist on federal welfare payments to adjust to that circumstance. This is entirely an artificial depression, focused on our rural communities and to the advantage of industrial forestland owners and the legal profession. Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin doesn’t mean “you are going to be bankrupted via federal regulations and the courts, so get ready.”

          Yep, and all those government food stamp handouts and other federal welfare programs foisted on formally proud, hard-working and independent families have been a real Gore-send to those people — many have used these benefits to go on (“transition”) to careers in law, social services, and software sales. Right. Need a bridge?

          I don’t know what you are calling “mature” forests, but trust me. Way more “critical spotted owl habitat” has gone up in flames rather than logging the past 25 years. Your numbers are wrong.

          • Gotta say..the acres discussion calls forth the most simple needs for the People’s Database.
            I wonder if those data would be available through monitoring of the NW Forest Plan?

      • Bob . . . sorry for the delay in answering your “what plan were you referring to” question. The Northwest Forest Plan. Judge Dwyer explains the NFP’s spotted owl strategy most succinctly:

        The adopted strategy calls for a shrinkage of habitat, over decades, followed by an expansion and stabilization. Pointing to demographic data that suggest an accelerating population decline, some scientists urge that the risk of the transition period should not be taken.

        Seattle Audubon Soc’y v. Lyons, 871 F. Supp. 1291, 1321 (W.D. Wash. 1994) (emphasis added).

        This was the last of Dwyer’s significant spotted owl decisions, which affirmed the legality of the Northwest Forest Plan.


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