Politics & Policy

Killing Owls to Save Owls

The contorted consequences of ill-thought-out environmentalism.

First they came for the loggers, destroying 30,000 jobs and countless lives. Now they’re coming for the Barred Owl.

Anyone remember the Great Spotted Owl Controversy? Back in the late 80s and early 90s, it was the first major instance of the environmental movement (with the cooperation of Al Gore and the Clinton administration) using the Endangered Species Act to accomplish their stealth goal — in this case driving productive mankind out of millions of acres of federally owned old-growth forest.

When a judge ruled that cutting down trees endangered the picky owl’s habitat and had to end, it sparked widespread protests and marches by soon-to-be out-of-work loggers.

The economies of small towns in the Pacific Northwest collapsed, as the rural chainsaw-wielding Kulaks were defenestrated by judicial edict. Federally subsidized housing for the spotted owl grew from 690,000 acres in 1986 to 11.6 million acres in 1991. Oregon’s timber harvest on federal land plunged from 4.9 billion board feet in 1988 to 240 million board feet in 2009. The usual phony advocacy science promised this was all in a good cause and that the species would rapidly recover.

Oops. Fast forward 20 years. According to the Oregonian, the spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) wasn’t served a copy of the court ruling, and has continued to die off. Turns out the major culprit in its demise was evolution — in the form of the barred owl, a closely related species that is bigger, more omnivorous, and generally all around superior to the spotted owl. Barred owls (Strix varia), also native to North America, seize spotted owl habitat and out-compete the endangered species. Admitted a draft report containing a new management plan that’s expected to be finalized this month: “The threat posed by barred owls to spotted owl recovery is better understood now than when the spotted owl was listed.” No kidding. Tell that to the loggers.

The only solution, which has riled even some environmentalists, is no evolution: The Fish and Wildlife service plans to start taxing the successful barred owl to bail out the big-government lobby’s spotted owl. Terminally tax. With firearms. They will be killing owls in order to save them. I mean, what’s the deal with liberals — they believe in evolution in theory, but not in practice? And they say we’re anti-science? Should environmental justice grow out of the barrel of a gun?

The method of control is gruesome. They plan to use the barred owl’s fierce devotion to its property rights against it. barred owls attack other owls that invade its territory. So steely eyed, shotgun-toting environmentalists plan to play owl calls over loudspeakers, and when the evil barred owl comes to investigate — pow. A final decision on the mass executions needs to pass environmental review, and won’t be made until the summer. We’re waiting for a reporter in DC to ask the administration its position on shooting the successful, even if we think we know what it is.

The jokes may write themselves, but there are serious issues here as well. The proposed management plan by the Fish and Wildlife service has spurred lawsuits by property owners (Homo sapiens), because for the first time it will regulate forests in private hands, doubling down on a policy that hasn’t worked. Property owners also contend that the government used “experts and advisers who are not federal employees,” and that it developed much of the plan in secret, with no notes to back up many of the aspects of the plan. Sound familiar?

Reading through the draft report, it’s pretty clear that the spotted-owl lobby and the judiciary had no idea what they were doing when they put 30,000 loggers out of work. Not only did they miss the barred owl, they forgot that fire — whose ecological role was poorly understood before the 1988 Yellowstone blaze — was particularly threatening in the old-growth forest they sought to preserve. “The loss of Northern spotted owl habitat to high-severity wildfire in the Klamath and Cascade Provinces has been relatively high over the last decade and if this trend continued [sic], could significantly impact the owl in these drier forests.”  Besides spending money on annually killing one species of owl to save another, Fish and Wildlife appears to envision a long-term grooming program for spotted-owl habitats, price unknown. Parts of the “natural” old-growth habitat may require pruning and cleaning ad infinitum to minimize fire. Other recently discovered factors in the spotted owl’s demise include “Sudden Oak Death” (first discovered in 1995) which threatens to wipe out the owl’s preferred tree, the tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) and the West Nile virus, which first appeared in the United States in 1999.

There are alternatives. Backing Darwin and the barred owl, an unfeeling Bush administration proposed in 2007 to shrink the spotted owl’s government handout and expand the area available to logging by about 1.6 million acres. Environmental groups stopped the plan cold in court, which brings us back to the real stealth policy. This is no more about the spotted owl than the Iraq war was about Cindy Sheehan. The purpose is to tie up as much acreage as possible and prevent logging.

The spotted owl lobby can’t just admit it was wrong and let nature takes its course. Assuming the barred owl pushes the spotted owl into extinction, there’s no reason to keep 11 million federal acres free of logging. Unlike its federally subsidized cousin, the barred owl is neither endangered nor picky about where it lives — old growth, new growth, wherever.

Looking back, it’s amazing what environmentalists and their fellow-traveling journalists got away with before the Internet. About all that breached the reality filter was that evil loggers were killing owls. Now, in arguing against terminating the barred owl with extreme prejudice, some biologists say that the two species are closely related, since they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Some suspect they diverged from a common ancestor during the last Ice Age, when populations were split into East Coast and West Coast versions, with the West Coast branch (typically) becoming more laid back. Rather than the extinction of a species, it may be that all we’re seeing is a post-glacial restoration of the natural order of things.

The cuteness factor here drives me nuts. The spotted owl scam wasn’t just the first overreaching use of the Endangered Species Act, it also was the first environmental crusade under the act with a lovable cuddly star, much the same as the polar bear has become poster child for the cap-and-trade crowd. I remember following the story at the time and was shocked to learn from recent reports from dissenting scientists that spotted owls prefer to feast on adorable little flying squirrels, which compose around 40 percent of their diet.

I bow to no one in my love for raptors and maintain a lavish bird-feeding program to support my neighborhood sharp shinned hawk, Harriet, with a steady diet of finches, house sparrows, and mourning doves. But even I draw the line at squirrels and chase them away from the feeder when she shows up. The little rodents are too darn cute.

The loggers had a lousy PR team. Instead of delivering funeral wreaths to the White House and making jokes about deep-fried owl, this whole thing might have turned out differently if they had dressed up as Rocky the Flying Squirrel for their protests.

— Lou Dolinar is a retired reporter for Newsday who was born on the Right side of the tracks in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. 


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