Wednesday, February 23, 2011

We Have to Shoot the Owls to Save Them

Should Oregon shoot barred owls to save spotted owls?

Ted sent me an article which contained this link to the Oregonian, an article on the how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has discovered that the greatest threat to the Spotted Owl appears to be a more adaptable and aggressive relative, the Barred Owl, rather than loss of habitat or mean loggers with guns.
Come summer, federal wildlife officials expect to finish a draft environmental impact statement that most likely recommends taking to the woods with shotguns. Over the next year, in three or more study areas from Washington to northern California, they might kill 1,200 to 1,500 barred owls -- the larger, more aggressive competitor that has routed spotted owls from much of their territory and become, along with habitat loss, the biggest threat to their survival.

It's a wrenching decision that splits wildlife biologists and environmentalists. Killing one native animal to benefit another -- especially a "big, beautiful raptor, a fantastic bird," as one biologist puts it -- is such a leap that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired an environmental ethicist to guide its discussions.
Barred Owls killed to make room
Growing up, Ted and I spent a lot of time together on a piece of timber land named Walden III, a piece of land, approximately 2000 acres of mixed timber, pasture, and scrub near Roseburg, Oregon.  Our father, and a bunch of his friends bought it in pieces, starting in the mid 60's as a vacation site and an investment.  Of all the people involved, it's quite likely that Ted and I got the most use out of the property, which we used to visit and hunt on regularly when I was a grad student at Oregon State, and Ted was, well a multitude of things.

One of our great fears was that someone might find pair of nesting Spotted Owls on the property, which might have effectively ruined it's value as timber land.
Some biologists believe the proposal won't work. More barred owls, perhaps hundreds, would have to be killed every year to keep the study areas free of interlopers for three to 10 years. One biologist estimated the cost at up to $1 million annually.

Others oppose intervening in what they see as natural selection at work.

"Population dynamics between two native species should not be artificially manipulated," says Blake Murden, wildlife and fisheries director for Port Blakely Tree Farms in Tumwater, Wash. The company is not anti-owl. In 2009 it agreed to manage 45,000 acres as spotted owl habitat in exchange for protection from additional logging restrictions.

Murden says barred owls expanded rapidly because they adapt well to mixed habitat and eat a variety of prey, while spotted owls prefer old-growth to nest and, in most of its range, flying squirrels to eat.

"It's a generalist and a specialist," Murden says, "and invariably the generalist will win."
I disagree with the last statement.  If it were true, there would be no specialist species, and a few generalists, like humans would rule the world.  But, in fact there are many specialists, and they exist because, at least for a while, a specialist can utilize a particular environment more efficiently than a generalist.  They may not survive a major change in that environment.  To a large extent, evolution consists of a continual propagation and pruning of specialists.

Anyway, I won't pretend to know what is right to do in this case, but I'll offer this, once you start playing God, you better be be omniscient.

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