The relatively similar appearance of the barred and spotted owls is certain to produce inadvertent kills of the very birds the USFWS’s unfortunate plan is intended to protect.

Federal Plan to Massacre Native Barred Owls Impractical, Costly, and Cruel

Where does it end for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if it starts to manage competition and social relationships among native species?

My first objection to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s unprecedented plan to kill half a million barred owls is the agency’s loose, incorrect, and, at least in conservation circles, politically incendiary use of the terms “non-native” and “invasive.” Barred owls, like the Northern spotted owls the agency wants to protect, are native to North America, along with 17 other owl species. Period.

Barred owls don’t live in the United States and Canada because the pet trade conscripted Old World trappers to capture them and ship them to North America, where impulsive owners purchased them and then set them free. They weren’t brought to the United States by the feather or fur traders, as were nutria, who got a one-way ticket to North America, escaped their cages on fur farms, and put down and pulled up roots from Delaware to California.

No, barred owls have been here long before humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge. And, of course, barred owls have been here way longer than the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, the precursor of today’s USFWS, formed in 1871.

In fact, the proof of “nativeness” is that the birds are protected under federal law. Nothing screams “native species” more than an animal’s being listed as protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Employees of an energy company or a timber company, or a poacher taking pot shots at one, are subject to felony penalties for killing even a single barred owl.

The range of these forest owls covered half of the continental United States and much of Canada. With human perturbations of the environment and with the natural process of animals exploring and searching for suitable habitats, they extended that range, relying on the vast, uninterrupted stretches of the boreal forests of Canada to make their way decades ago to the closed-canopy forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Dozens of Organizations, Including Some Audubon Groups, Say Scheme Cannot Work

Last week, my colleague Scott Edwards and I wrote to USFWS leaders on behalf of 83 organizations, including several regional Audubon organizations, to urge the agency to nix its plan to kill 500,000 barred owls between now and 2055. For the urgent goal of protecting threatened and endangered Northern spotted owls, the agency must explore and implement other options.

Today, the Los Angeles Times endorsed that idea. “Maybe the government should consider what one biologist who has long studied spotted owls has suggested: Let nature take its course and leave it to the owls,” wrote the biggest paper in the West in its editorial. “That’s ecological heresy to many conservationists whose philosophy is that you conserve threatened or endangered species when you have a way to do it. But it’s worth taking another look at whether this is a case where conservation of one species warrants killing another.”

Does the agency really think it can sustain political support for an exceedingly controversial plan through eight presidential terms? In developing this scheme, the decision-makers at the USFWS may have paid little heed to political science and failed to understand how the best-laid plans and policies of presidential administrations are often tossed aside in a New York minute when the party in power is put out to pasture.

Beyond its inordinately long timeline, this plan has other practical elements making it unworkable. For one, there is no readily available workforce to conduct such a complicated animal-control program, with mass killing of a nocturnal species living in such low densities across vast forest lands, controlled by a diverse set of federal, state, tribal, and private parties.

It also will cause severe disruptions to wildlife from the forest floor to its canopies, producing an untold number of mistaken-identity kills of other native owl species (including spotted owls), disrupting nesting behavior for animals, poisoning wildlife from dispersed and fragmented lead, and causing rapid dispersal and social chaos among many other species inhabiting these forest ecosystems. Night hunting of the animals is unimaginable and even more impractical. 

Not a Capital Crime for a Native Species to Find Suitable Habitat

We cannot victimize animals for adapting to human perturbations of the environment. Climate change, forest clearing for agriculture or human settlement, and other effects of human economic activity will continue to trigger all sorts of species movements. Range expansion is a naturally occurring ecological phenomenon, a core behavioral characteristic of many species of birds and mammals. Indeed, it is the process that led to current species distribution patterns. Just as there is no end to history, there is no end to species movements

The agency knows that eliminating barred owls is a practical and political impossibility. In fact, the USFWS says it will conduct killing over 25 percent of forested habitats occupied by spotted and barred owls. That means there will be surviving populations of barred owls throughout the Pacific northwest forests, and those owls will migrate to the areas recently made vacant by the shootings. And they’ll also stream in from British Columbia, where there are also established populations. If it decides to go on this exercise regiment, the agency will jump on a killing treadmill it will never be able to jump off. But it won’t be burning calories —mjust hundreds of millions of your tax dollars into the second half of the 21st century.

As Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist and forest owl expert, told the Seattle Times, “once you start” killing barred owls, “you can never stop.” His recommendation: “Let the two species work it out.”

Federal Government Has a Long and Mixed History of Failure on Wildlife Control

The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has engaged in a decades-long plan to slaughter coyotes on sight — annually taking 100,000 or so of the ecologically beneficial animals. Even after enduring this sustained assault, coyotes have dramatically expanded their range and colonized parts of the United States that they haven’t lived in for more than a century.

We know that coyotes are breeding with red wolves, diluting the genetic make-up of these endangered animals. If the barred owl plan is unleashed, will the USFWS then try to double down on coyote killing and try to wipe them out throughout North Carolina, where red wolves live? Where does this attempt to manage the social relationships of wild animals end?

Animals compete against one another. They kill each other. They breed with each other. They compete for prey and space. That’s nature. It happens every minute of every day among thousands of species. It happens within families, it happens within species, it happens between species. Wolves kill wolves or wolverines kill wolverines. When a species is endangered, do federal wildlife personnel have the ability to sort through their endless interactions with other species?

Where does this all end if the Service goes down this road?

Wasting Finite ESA Dollars on a Plan Doomed to Fail

The plan to kill barred owls is unprecedented in the history of American wildlife management. It is falsely described in the press as a conflict between two valued ideas: halting cruelty to native wildlife and saving an imperiled species. Let me underscore this point one more time: this plan cannot work. It won’t save spotted owls. It will just distract and squander resources from practical approaches to protecting spotted owls, such as keeping their habitats intact while allowing the timber industry to continue to destroy spotted owl habitat with its logging activities.

The whole plan is myopic, looking too narrowly on the movements of a single species, bowing to the difficulties in addressing the root causes plaguing spotted owls, and willfully ignoring the cascade of adverse effects of a killing scheme of epic proportions in an environment unsuited for that kind of thing.

Smarter, more strategic uses of the agency’s finite funds for endangered species protections must be made. One might ask, is the agency dooming other species by pledging to spend hundreds of millions on an action destined to fail?

This is a case of the federal wildlife agency not seeing the forest for the trees.

Dear reader: If you support substantive policy work to protect animals, please consider donating to the Center for a Humane Economy today. You can give any amount one time, or make it a monthly gift, as many of our supporters do. Thank you for helping us fight for all animals. Please go here to make your contribution.