Federal Plan to Save Spotted Owl: Shoot Barred Owl

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The phrase "Robbing Peter to pay Paul" comes to mind when considering a new plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to save the endangered Northern spotted owl.

That plan: shoot barred owls--a principal competitor of the spotted owl.

Though the USFWS policy hasn't officially been released yet, The Oregonian reports that it's likely to include a strategy to kill off between 1,200 and 1,500 barred owls from northern California through Oregon and Washington:

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.

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The Oregonian
Dead barred owls like these might become more common under a new USFW plan.
Killing off invasive species is a common practice in wildlife management, but barred owls aren't invasive--they're native. And several environmental groups are arguing that killing them won't help the problem unless people are prepared to shoot the owls by the thousands every single year.

One biologist estimates the cost of such a plan to be $1 million annually.

Plus, by seemingly all accounts, the barred owl is simply a stronger and better-adapted species. It eats a wider variety of food and nests in a wider variety of places than the spotted owl.

Thus, the classic Darwinian argument comes into play:

"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. "It's a generalist and a specialist," Murden says, "and invariably the generalist will win."

At the same time, there are experiments that suggest shooting the barred owls works in bringing back its spotted cousin.

A limited experiment on private California timberland showed spotted owls returned to their original nesting and roosting areas in every instance when barred owls were killed. In one case, a pair that hadn't been seen for more than two years reappeared just 10 days after a pair of barred owls were shot.

So the question comes down to whether a long, expensive, and morally objectionable plan to protect a rare and--many would argue--inferior species of bird is worth the effort--and really, if killing one native species is ever justified in preserving another.

Somehow it seems right, at least, that the debate be settled through America's most controversial endangered bird: the spotted owl.

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