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Controversial plan calls for killing one species to save another

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The Northern Spotted Owl, a medium-sized owl with big expressive eyes, is a near-threatened species that’s well-known for causing controversy around the logging industry for contributing to a loss of jobs. Now, in another effort to reverse the decline in spotted owl populations, the government is causing controversy within the conservationism community.

To help save the spotted owl in the Northwest, the Obama administration has announced they’re going ahead with a plan to kill the bigger, more aggressive Barred Owl. Barred Owls overlap much of the same area as Northern Spotted Owls, and they tend to outcompete the smaller spotted owls for food and resources. So, the logic is you have to kill a lot of one bird species to save another species.

This is where the difficult issues arise. Any bird that is declining as rapidly as the Northern Spotted Owl, which is down 40 percent in the last 25 years, deserves a chance to survive. However, there is an ethical dilemma when it’s at the expense of another species.

The government has tried other methods to save the Northern Spotted Owl, including setting aside millions of acres of habitat for the bird, but numbers kept declining. The latest plan would designate even more acres for the bird, while allowing eco-logging to take place to ensure the area is not susceptible to destructive fires.

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The most controversial part of the plan, of course, is to remove the Barred Owl.

Lethal and non-lethal ways to remove the Barred Owl would take place, including either outright killing the owls or capturing them to live in captivity. There is currently an experiment taking place in California that’s showing positive results in Northern Spotted Owl populations when the Barred Owl is removed. While this shows some promising signs, it will take the removal of thousands of Barred Owls to see a positive chance on a widespread level.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in OPB News:

Removing barred owls is an experiment worth trying, said Talent resident Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist who was a member of the spotted owl recovery team appointed by the USFWS in April 2006.

“The draft plan makes sense from the experimental standpoint — it is appropriate to do whatever we can to prevent the demise of the spotted owl,” said DellaSala, the chief scientist for the Ashland-based Geos Institute.

There is an emerging consensus among scientists that the decline of the northern spotted owl is from both habitat loss and the intrusion of the barred owl, he added.

“This plan is quite similar to what some of us had supported,” he said. “We need to experimentally remove barred owls in conjunction with spotted owl habitat protection. I spent a lot of time arguing that in the recovery team sessions.”

The government has been fighting a losing battle to save the Northern Spotted Owl over the years and many consider the owls to be indicators of the general health of the forest. We’ll have to wait and see to find out whether the plan will stir up backlash or help regrow populations.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.


  1. I agree Tim, it’s definitely a tough sell either way. We don’t want to let the Spotted Owl go quietly into that goodnight, but I don’t think we can say we haven’t put up a fight either, given the last 25 years of land conservation, dollars spent, and other measure taken (even if all of these other measure have been inadequate).

    I also wonder, how awful would it be if they did start killing off Barred Owls, and then for one reason or another that species started to become endangered?

  2. Thanks for your insightful perspective on such a touchy issue. Your logic about how there’s nothing unnatural about the Barred Owl is probably one of the best arguments I’ve seen against the plan. While we should probably just let nature run its course, it’s hard to accept the eventual extinction of any species without some sort of fight.

  3. Thanks for posting on this interesting and controversial topics TIm.

    For my two cents (and two sense is all I ever have), it doesn’t seem like there’s anything unnatural or unusual in what the Barred Owl is doing. I wonder about the ethics of keeping a species alive that can only stay alive through our continued, direct intervention (perpetual life support), instead of just some conservation of habitat and such. Trading an owl for an owl seems silly to me, even if one argues that the Barred Owls can afford it. Do we ever let nature take its course anymore?

    I guess some people would say, “Well, the Spotted Owl is only endangered because we did too much logging way back in the day, so it’s our responsibility to preserve it now.” Maybe so, but why is it so deprecatory to just say, “Ok, they made a mistake. We can’t keep this owl alive now without killing other owls that occupy the same niche (so no one can really argue that letting the Spotted Owl go would throw off the ecosystem or anything), so let’s just let nature take its course.”

    So I guess my conclusion is that we should leave the Barred Owls alone. If the Spotted Owls go, that’s an indirect consequence of us NOT killing Barred Owls, which seems to be the moral imperative of a good steward of the earth.

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