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The Oregonian: "Shooting one owl to save another"

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January 9, 2008; Biologists grappled Tuesday with the realities of shooting barred owls that invade the older forest habitat of federally protected northern spotted owls, a strategy critics say the Bush administration employs to help spotted owls while also trimming away at their preserves in an effort to open up logging.

Michael Milstein, The Oregonian Staff

Biologists grappled Tuesday with the realities of shooting barred owls that invade the older forest habitat of federally protected northern spotted owls, a strategy critics say the Bush administration employs to help spotted owls while also trimming away at their preserves in an effort to open up logging.

A scientist who experimented with barred owl control in Northern California said it proved relatively easy, at least in limited areas of accessible forests, and removing some adult barred owls before nesting season could control the broader population and open a window for spotted owls to come back.

The cost would be relatively minor, Lowell Diller, a biologist with Green Diamond Resource Co. in Northern California, told researchers meeting Tuesday in Portland. He cautioned he wasn't trying to make light of it, but said, "This is almost like a redneck sport -- you do it from the tail of your pickup."

The researchers are reviewing the scientific basis for a spotted owl recovery plan drafted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The plan is the Bush administration's attempt to lay out a blueprint for the resurrection of the spotted owl, which suffered from intensive logging in past decades and is now being shouldered out of forests by the barred owl.

Millions of acres of federal forest have been placed beyond reach of loggers to protect the spotted owl and other wildlife that fall under the federal Endangered Species Act. But control of barred owls has emerged as a key issue.

The issue has special relevance in Oregon because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is proposing to boost logging on public land in western Oregon, which would generate more timber revenue for hard-pressed coastal counties. The new owl recovery plan provides options, involving less protected acreage, that could make it easier for the BLM logging proposal to move forward.

But sharp criticism of the plan stung the Fish and Wildlife Service, which asked Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, a Portland consulting company, to lead a scientific review of the science behind the controversial plan. The move could help provide more scientific credibility for the plan's strategies, but could also expose it to further criticism if the panel finds holes in it.

Federal officials Tuesday described earlier meetings in which biologists identified control of barred owls as a high priority action to help spotted owls. But biologists speaking Tuesday also stressed that owl habitat remains important, too, because shrinking the available habitat could push barred owls and spotted owls into further conflict.

"If you remove habitat it's just going to enhance the competitive pressures between the two species," said Robert Anthony, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in Corvallis.

Larger questions also emerged. Eric Forsman, a longtime owl biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said it will never be clear whether the barred owls moved from East Coast states to the West naturally, or whether human activities encouraged their spread. If they spread naturally, he said, many scientists might argue with trying to halt that process in order to save spotted owls.

"We're saying the (Endangered Species Act) trumps natural selection, which is problematic for a large number of scientists," he said.

But Steven Courtney, vice president of SEI, who led Tuesday's meeting, said it would be up to federal policymakers, not the scientists, to deal with that issue.