Otter on Owls: Federal plan to save spotted owls is flawed, costly

Published: August 17, 2013 

Idaho Governor Butch Otter weighed in to today’s Idaho Statesman with the following editorial on spotted owls. I like the analogies between wolves, people, and owls that he presents. The editorial can be found here:


Consider Neanderthals. They were shorter, slower and less mobile than their cousins, modern humans. As a result, Neanderthals’ range stayed small and restricted over time while smarter, more adaptable humans spread across the globe. Eventually, the competition was too much for them and Neanderthals died out.

Now consider the northern spotted owl. It’s smaller, less aggressive and more specialized in its diet and habitat than its cousin, the barred owl. As a result, the spotted owl’s range stayed small and restricted over time while the barred owl spread from the East Coast to the Pacific. The competition was too much for the spotted owl, but they didn’t quite die out.

Instead, man intervened.

In 1990, the federal government tried to save the spotted owl by listing it as a “threatened species” and by shutting down logging on vast swaths of Northwest old-growth forests, destroying an industry and the communities it supported. Since that didn’t work, wildlife experts now want to try killing thousands of those bigger, stronger, more adaptable barred owls.

Clearly the Neanderthals could have used some federal experts and Endangered Species Act protections.

Meanwhile, John James Audubon and Charles Darwin are rolling over in their graves.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced plans to spend about $3 million to kill 3,603 barred owls in four areas of Oregon, Washington and northern California over the next four years. That works out to almost $833 for each dead barred owl.

Back in 1994, when the Northwest Forest Plan was launched to protect about 20 million acres of federal land from logging in defense of spotted owls, we all were assured that habitat was the key to their survival. We were told that abandoning an economy and a culture that had supported generations of people would pay off with the salvation of an “indicator species” and, by extension, a unique and irreplaceable ecosystem.

It sounded a lot like what’s by now become shop-worn shorthand for the insanity of war: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

As it turned out, that federally protected old-growth habitat did nothing for the spotted owl population, which has continued to decline. That’s a lot more than unfortunate for the timber towns and the families who used to live there. But now the Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the real culprit, and has it in its sights.

A final decision is expected this month on whether to “experiment” with the systematic killing of barred owls, which now outnumber spotted owls by as many as five to one in some locations.

We soon may have armed federal experts roaming through our forests, calling and then killing thousands of one type of owl to save another. You might recognize these folks as the same ones who “reintroduced” wolves to Idaho, and now they’re desperately trying to salvage what a misguided but powerful government policy has failed to achieve for decades.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

Like most federal programs, it figures to be LOPSOD — long on promises, short on delivery. But if it winds up working better than shutting down our forests did, which is a very low bar to clear, should we then start saving a place on the endangered species list for barred owls next?

Butch Otter is the governor of Idaho.

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10 thoughts on “Otter on Owls: Federal plan to save spotted owls is flawed, costly”

    • Gil: Thanks for the compliment and invite. As it now stands, I regularly follow about 8 or 9 blogs and mainly contribute to one or two at a time, depending on the topic at hand. Plus, when I’m working (“getting paid”) on something, my blogging time — except for reading posts and comments of others — is pretty much compromised. Thanks, too, for reposting some of the content of this blog in other blogs you manage. The wider the distribution of these posts and discussions on the topics of forest management and planning, the better. In my opinion.

  1. Good morning
    Glad to see, at last, that people are remembering about the spotted owl First
    want everybody to know that the spottedc owl syndrome is the beggining of the battle lost to
    a weaker enemy compared to ourselves. Sadly in the lumber business,because it always
    was a very clean and jmportant industry we never cared to fight together and this is the main reason why they defeated us and like ostriches we put our heads in the sand.
    Well here are the consequences,from being one of the most respected now we have becomethe most hated industry called the Assesins of the trees. How was that possible. Let us start from the begginning, after the fall of the Berlin wall there was a lot of very smart and intelligent people that lost their jobs. What they did was reinvent themseves
    and to become a much safer and long lasting cause. Tey knew how to move in pollitical
    matters, so adding 2+2 they found an industry that they could destroy eaily knowing the lack of interest this people had and thisis where they hit us real hard. They increased their cause and we decreased heavily ours.From this moment until today they are still increasing
    their influence in such a degree that even the kids in school are taught to defend the trees
    and feel heroes for it. We on the other hand are getting one low after the other and believe me . “The worst is yet to come” because they already convinced our business competitors
    to make a campain against us. Do you remember the steel and concret industry
    saying “save trees use steel”
    But there is an item that makes this even wost- A government agency has reommender to use products that requiresmall erergy requirements to fabricate
    Well it so happens that lumber needs only one thenth of the nerghy that steel,concrete and plastics need to be manufactures. I believe these news have been ignored by usas n o action has been taken on this amazing news. Conclusion when we are attacked we lose the battle,when we have favorable news in our favor to defeat them
    we dont do anything. What a pity so please wake up and get cracking

  2. Butch Otter’s “Neanderthal” example is unsurprising (for him) but not very original. In the human social context, similar just-let-the-less-fit-die-off “analysis” has been used to justify slavery, various attempts at genocide, social Darwinism (probably as close to Darwin as Butch ever came), the Aryan Nation agenda (another Idaho embarrassment)… well, except for occasional interference by those darned “interventionists.” Butch has always been a flunky for the grazing, timber, and other corporate interests, and has always shown his disdain for the ESA, so I’ll grant that he’s at least consistent. And now he’s an evolutionary biologist, it seems. (p.s. I’m talking about Mr. Otter in my capacity as a private citizen, not as a state employee).

    • Guy.. what does it mean to be “a flunky”- is it the same as “agreeing with their positions”. Maybe he honestly agrees with them. I think it’s important to think people could honestly disagree with their own thoughts and not just because of some kind of insidious corporate influence.

      For example me. If I agree with, say, Tom Troxel on something, am I a “flunky of the timber industry”. But I also disagree with him. So am I an “intermittent flunky?” Or maybe a person with my own mind? I agree with Governor Otter that shooting barred owls is a waste of money, and I am an evolutionary biologist.

      I looked at Otter’s bio and he seems like he has a good background in terms of a moral structure. So it seems possible that he might be saying what he truly believes. It’s at least worth considering since we don’t really know what is in a person’s mind and heart.

  3. And you are a flunky for the “preservationist” at all costs point of view.More than sort of simple minded, right?

    Your zeal and self righteousness makes it hard to take you seriously…i.e you are as embarassing as the pol you call out…ain’t life grand.

    • anonymous mike, it’s true we’re all flunkies for something or other, at least in one dictionary sense of “performing menial or miscellaneous duties.” In that perspective, I’m a flunky for my students, for Idaho agriculture, for my pro bono legal aid clients, among other things. I’m sure Butch Otter has other attributes beyond my narrow characterization, so apologies to Mr. Otter for stereotyping him. I’m sure you have attributes too, mike, and encourage you to “come out” and share them. -gk

      • Thanks, Guy: I have a real problem too with anonymous posters making ad hominem attacks on those of us with real identities, no matter who they are attacking. I’ve stopped posting on several blogs during the past few years due to name-calling and lecturing by these cowardly shadow people. Fortunately, most of the people on this blog clearly identify themselves or make themselves known to others when there is a reason (usually “government employment”) for their anonymity. I was a little surprised by your characterizations of Otter, but also noted that you clearly identified the opinions as your own rather than representing any kind of organization or institution. And you used your real name, just like a letters to the editor column in the local newspaper.

  4. Excellent, and … Neanderthals mated with Humans so they still live on in some of us. Research shows that Humans have between 0% and 4% Neanderthal DNA: 0.5 % in Africans, 1.5% in Chinese and 4% in Europeans. Given my heritage, I likely have 4% Neanderthal and it comes in handy. If we had killed Humans in order to protect Neanderthals, the 100% Neanderthal would definitely have struggled long before today, given European History since that time. I say “HumansFirst!” if we want to survive another 30,000 years.


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