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for people who care about the West

When is a barred owl a red herring?


The draft recovery plan identifies competition from the barred owl, which is not native to the Pacific Northwest, as the primary threat facing the northern spotted owl. – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, April 26, 2007.

That’s right, I’m a barred owl. My wife tells me to keep quiet, keep my beak clean, try to blend in. But the way I see it, I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. I mean, barred owls are practically poster birds for the American dream. Decades ago, we left our ancestral home in the East and made our way across the windswept prairies, facing exposure, starvation and hostile natives. Maybe your ancestors did that, but could you?

Finally, we reached the forests of the Pacific Northwest. They were a little dense, but basically they suited us just fine, especially where the huge old trees had been thinned out. True, there were spotted owls in residence, but they’re the kind that my mother used to call “too good for this world.” They always seem to like things just so -- just the right mix of big trees, old mistletoe brooms for nests, truffles for the flying squirrels to eat, peace and quiet, yada yada yada. All very nice, I’m sure, but last time I looked, forests like that are found mostly in picture books.

Anyway, we moved in and made ourselves at home. In the process, I guess, some spotted owls were pushed out, but hey, that’s nature’s way and all that. The thing is, barred owls first showed up in Oregon in the mid-1970s. The spotted owl’s troubles began long before that. When the spotted owl was listed on the Endangered Species Act in 1990, the reason was clearly stated by federal biologists: “Loss and adverse modification of suitable habitat as a result of timber harvesting and exacerbated by catastrophic events such as fire.” I’m not saying we’re making things any better, but come on, don’t blame us!

Yet this spring, the federal government came out with its 2007 Draft Spotted Owl Recovery Plan. Imagine my surprise when practically the first thing I read was: “Actions associated with addressing the barred owl threat were the only ones given the highest priority in this plan,” with a recommendation “that specific actions to address the barred owl threat begin immediately and in a coordinated manner across the range.” I didn’t like the sound of that.

My worst fears were confirmed in Appendix G, titled: “Barred owl removal strategy.” That’s right, the plan proposes to shoot barred owls -- more than 500 in all -- and then see if spotted owls move back in. What if the experiment works and some spotted owls come back; does the government think it can kill all of us barred owls? The plan is silent on that point, but there are plenty of examples I could cite of attempted biological controls that cost plenty and failed miserably.

Sure, I’m biased. Would you want to be “removed?” But take a look at the rest of the plan. You’d think if such drastic measures get proposed such as killing a protected native species (barred owls are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act), then surely other measures will be put in place to protect the old-growth forests that spotted owls like so much.

Well, no. The plan instead proposes to reduce protections guaranteed in the Northwest Forest Plan. In fact, one of the two options in the plan doesn’t designate critical habitat boundaries at all, but instead “recognizes the dynamic nature of forest ecosystems and provides flexibility to land managers.” The government has also just released its “Proposed revised designation of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl,” and it removes more than 1.5 million acres of formerly protected public lands from the critical habitat list.

So here it is in a nutshell: The government’s new review shows that spotted owls are in worse shape than anyone thought. But even though dozens of studies show that habitat loss is the key reason for the spotted owl’s decline, this new plan cuts habitat protection. The scapegoat is the barred owl, and many of us must die.

Yes, that’s right, which means that something stinks, and it’s surely not me. Owls are scrupulously clean creatures. Here’s a hint: This new plan was the result of a legal settlement between the timber industry and the Bush administration. You figure it out, since you’re the ones with the big brains. Hooo-awww!

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].