Owl killings spur moral
questions about human intervention
and News 10/16/19
(AP) — As he stood amid the thick old-growth forests in the
coastal range of Oregon, Dave Wiens was nervous. Before he
trained to shoot his first barred owl, he had never fired a
the big female owl, her feathers streaked brown and white,
perched on a branch at just the right distance. Then he
squeezed the trigger and the owl fell to the forest floor,
adding to a running tally of more than 2,400
barred owls killed so far
in a controversial experiment by the U.S. government to test
whether the northern spotted owl's rapid decline in the
Pacific Northwest can be stopped by killing its aggressive
East Coast cousin.
Wiens grew up
fascinated by birds, and his graduate research in owl
interactions helped lay the groundwork for this tense
"It's a little
distasteful, I think, to go out killing owls to save another
owl species," said Wiens, a biologist who still views each
shooting as "gut-wrenching" as the first. "Nonetheless, I
also feel like from a conservation standpoint, our back was
up against the wall. We knew that barred owls were
outcompeting spotted owls and their populations were going
government has been trying for decades to save the northern
spotted owl, a native bird that sparked an intense battle
over logging across Washington, Oregon and California
After the owl
was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in
1990, earning it a cover on Time Magazine, federal officials
halted logging on millions of acres of old-growth forests on
federal lands to protect the bird's habitat. But the birds'
population continued to decline.
researchers, including Wiens, began documenting another
threat — larger, more aggressive barred owls competing with
spotted owls for food and space and displacing them in some
In almost all
ways, the barred owl is the spotted owl's worst enemy: They
reproduce more often, have more babies per year and eat the
same prey, like squirrels and wood rats. And they now
outnumber spotted owls in many areas of the native bird's
The U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service's experiment, which began in 2015, has
raised thorny questions: To what extent can we reverse
declines that have unfolded over decades, often partially
due to actions by humans? And as climate change continues to
shake up the landscape, how should we intervene?
experimental killing of barred owls raised such moral
dilemmas when it first was proposed in 2012 that the Fish
and Wildlife Service took the unusual step of hiring an
ethicist to help work through whether it was acceptable and
could be done humanely.
experiment is unusual because it involves killing one
species of owl to save another owl species. But federal and
state officials already have intervened with other species.
They have broken the necks of thousands of cowbirds to save
the warbler, a songbird once on the brink of extinction. To
preserve salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest and perch and
other fish in the Midwest, agencies kill thousands of large
seabirds called double-crested cormorants. And last year, Congress
passed a law making it
easier for Oregon, Washington, Idaho and American Indian
tribes to kill sea lions that gobble imperiled salmon runs
in the Columbia River.
In four small
study areas in Washington, Oregon and northern California,
Wiens and his trained team have been picking off invasive
barred owls with 12-gauge shotguns to see whether the native
birds return to their nesting habitat once their competitors
are gone. Small efforts to remove barred owls in British
Columbia and northern California already showed promising
The Fish and
Wildlife Service has a permit to kill up to 3,600 owls and,
if the $5 million program works, could decide to expand its
works for the U.S. Geological Survey, now views his gun as
"a research tool" in humankind's attempts to maintain
biodiversity and rebalance the forest ecosystem. Because the
barred owl has few predators in Northwest forests, he sees
his team's role as apex predator, acting as a cap on a
population that doesn't have one.
stepping in and taking that role in nature, we may be able
to achieve more biodiversity in the environment, rather than
just having barred owls take over and wipe out all the prey
species," he said.
professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at
the University of Colorado, Boulder, finds the practice
abhorrent and said humans should find another way to help
"There's no way
to couch it as a good thing if you're killing one species to
save another," Bekoff said.
Harris, who directs the wildlife law program for Friends of
Animals, thinks the government should focus on what humans
are doing to the environment and protect habitats rather
than scapegoating barred owls.
"We really have
to let these things work themselves out," Harris said. "It's
going to be very common with climate change. What are we
going to do — pick and choose the winners?"
Some see a
responsibility to intervene, however, noting that humans are
partly to blame for the underlying conditions with
activities like logging, which helped lead to the spotted
owl's decline. And others just see a no-win situation.
"A decision not
to kill the barred owl is a decision to let the spotted owl
go extinct," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director with
the Audubon Society of Portland. "That's what we have to
experimental removal of barred owls improves the spotted owl
populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife may consider killing
more owls as part of a larger, long-term management
strategy. Enough success has been noted that the experiment
already has been extended to August 2021.
don't see northern spotted owls going extinct completely,"
Wiens said, adding that "extinction in this case will be
much longer process and from what we've seen from doing
these removal experiments, we may be able to slow some of
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