In the latest chapter in the quarter-century-old dispute over how to save northern spotted owls (top), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is now carrying out selective killings of the winged predator’s arch rival, the barred owl (bottom).
FWS biologists shot 26 barred owls on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in northeastern California in late 2013, the first step in a 6-year, $3.5 million plan to “remove” 3,600 invasive barred owls in Oregon, Washington, and California. The government-sanctioned killing of one species to benefit another is not unusual. As the Associated Press (Dec. 23) points out, sea lions and cormorants (coastal seabirds) are sometimes killed in order to protect certain species of salmon.
FWS officials refer to the latest action as an “experiment’ that is being performed because other federal efforts to reverse the decline in the numbers of spotted owls have failed. Indeed, FWS’s low-key move represents a radical departure from its high-profile policy of the late 1980s and early1990s that devastated wide swaths of the rural Pacific Northwest and, ultimately, did nothing to help the spotted owl.
Anatomy of a Hoax
The story unfolded in the late 1980s when several environmental organizations embarked on a mission to “protect’ forests in the Northwest from logging. Much of the area in question is federal land that is either under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service or the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Throughout most of the 20th century, the Forest Service and BLM sponsored periodic timber sales on these lands that provided local communities with jobs, and consumers in the U.S. and abroad with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wood products.
Disrupting this long-standing relationship between producers and consumers wouldn’t be easy, but environmentalists seized on the almost unlimited opportunities the Endangered Species Act (ESA) offered them, and, before long, the spotted owl obtained celebrity status.
In 1987, a newly formed consortium calling itself the Ancient Forest Alliance, which included the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, and other like-minded organizations, filed a petition with the FWS to have the northern spotted owl listed as an endangered species. FWS rejected the petition, citing a lack of evidence that the owl was endangered. Undaunted, local chapters of the Audubon Society filed separate suits against the Forest Service and BLM questioning whether the owl could survive planned timber harvests on lands under their jurisdiction.
The environmentalists’ argument rested on the assumption that the northern spotted owl, strix caurina occidentalis, was in danger of going extinct because its primary habitat, old-growth forests, was threatened by commercial logging. Spotted owls, however, not only inhabit old-growth forests, where flying squirrels are their favorite prey. They also are found in younger forests, where flying squirrels and other rodents are on their menu. That the owl’s survival depended on millions of acres being made off-limits to logging was an unfounded notion spread by environmentalists.
The emphasis on old growth was all about stirring up emotions. In the hands of skilled PR people, old growth quickly became “ancient,” inspiring even more reverence and awe in a public unfamiliar with the intricacies of forestry. Time magazine devoted a cover story to the owl, and actor Paul Newman told a “World of Audubon” audience on PBS that the fate of the forests and the owls goes to “the heart of society’s values.”
With the public sufficiently aroused, federal judges William Dwyer and Helen Frye, responding to petitions from the Audubon Society and its allies, issued orders halting hundreds of timber sales on Forest Service and BLM lands in 1989. In May 1990, the inappropriately named Interagency Scientific Committee to Address the Conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl, composed of scientists selected by FWS, BLM, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service, issued a report concluding that the lack of a consistent planning strategy had resulted in a high risk for extinction for the northern spotted owl.
The panel offered no evidence that old-growth forests were essential to the owl’s survival or even that its numbers were declining. It relied instead on what is known as the “Delphi approach,” which involves taking polls among scientists and making predictions based on the results. One month after the release of the report, FWS, reversing its 1987 decision, listed the owl as “threatened.”
Over the next five years, timber harvests in the Pacific Northwest fell by 80%. A U.S. House Resources Committee (now Natural Resources Committee) report put the job losses in the region at 130,000, after 900 saw mills, pulp mills, and paper mills closed in the wake of the federal government’s moves to save the spotted owl.
With its “experiment” designed to cull barred owls from the forests of the Pacific Northwest, FWS is now tacitly acknowledging that the government’s grand scheme to save the spotted owl by reducing logging in the region was a dismal failure. Timber-dependent communities were devastated, and the spotted owl is no better off now than it was 25 years ago. Even at the time, ornithologists and other biologists warned that the spotted owl’s problem was the larger barred owl, which had been migrating west for decades and was out-competing its smaller cousin for prey.
If rural communities in the Pacific Northwest and the spotted owl were the losers, then environmentalists were the clear winners. Using the spotted owl as a “surrogate,” in the telling words of Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund attorney Andy Stahl, Green activists demonized loggers and wrecked the region’s rural economy. And that was their goal from the outset. It was never about the owl.