Ethical Dilemma
7:49 pm
Thu January 16, 2014

Killing One Owl Species To Save Another

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Northwest Forest Plan scaled back logging across the region, in large part to preserve habitat for the endangered northern spotted owl. But the spotted owl continues to decline. Scientists blame the larger, more aggressive barred owl for pushing the spotted owl out of its natural habitat. Now, federal wildlife managers have begun shooting barred owls to see if removing the competition will allow spotted owls to recover.

Wildlife biologist Lowell Diller has spent the past 25 years studying spotted owls. So it was something of a shock for Diller when, on a stormy winter afternoon several years ago in a northern California forest, he found himself sighting down his shotgun barrel at an owl.

Lowell Diller:  “I was so conflicted about this that I was shaking so hard that I had to rest the gun a tree to steady myself to do it.”

A lifelong hunter, Diller had thought shooting an owl wouldn’t be that different from shooting a grouse or a turkey. But when a magnificent female adult responded to his owl call by swooping down to confront the intruder …

Lowell Diller: “Then I was faced with this moment like, OK this is what I came here for. I’m supposed to shoot this bird. And you know it was really difficult to finally pull the trigger.”

The owl Diller killed that day was a barred owl, a larger cousin of the spotted owl. Why did a man whose career has been spent trying to save owls end up shooting them? The answer to that is a study in the ethical dilemmas humans face when we try to repair the damage we’ve done to the natural world.

By the early 1990s, loss of the old growth habitat preferred by the spotted owl had caused a dramatic decline, and the bird was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan set aside more than 18 million acres to allow the northern spotted owl to recover.

But owl populations have continued to dwindle.

Paul Henson:  “The science is unambiguously clear, that barred owls are suppressing spotted owls.”

Paul Henson is Oregon state supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with spotted owl recovery. Unless something is done to ease the pressure barred owls are putting on their smaller cousins, Henson says …

Paul Henson:  “… spotted owl recovery is just not feasible. And they will likely go extinct in large portions of their range if not their entire range, no matter how much habitat you set aside.”

Studies show spotted owls are declining by nearly three percent each year in 11 Northwest study areas. A government report in 2012 showed that in six study areas in Washington and Oregon, the birds may already be headed toward extinction.

After a lot of research, and no small amount of soul-searching, the Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting tests to see if so-called “lethal removal” of barred owls will give spotted owls the breathing space they need. As you might imagine, the decision has been controversial.

Michael Harris: “In our minds, the law doesn’t allow in any circumstances the shooting of the barred owl to benefit the spotted owl.”

That’s Michael Harris. He’s an attorney for the Connecticut-based non-profit Friends of Animals. The group is suing in federal court to stop the barred owl removal study.  Harris says the suit seeks to force the government to reconsider other ways of dealing with the conflict between owl species.

Michael Harris: “They’re going to have to go back and look at increased habitat conservation and recovery, as well as trying to put in more non-lethal management to remove barred owls from immediately threatening spotted owls.”

Harris says that from a human perspective, shooting barred owls to save spotted owls may seem reasonable. But, he says …  

Michael Harris: “Friends of Animals sees this from the perspective of the barred owl. And we just don’t see any ethical justification for proceeding in this manner when humans caused this whole problem in the first instance.”

And that gets right to the ethical heart of this debate. Interestingly, there was an ethics panel convened as part of the environmental assessment of the owl conflict, the first time in the US an ethics panel was used in a federal environmental review.

Bill Lynn led that discussion. He’s an ethicist at Clark University, near Boston. Lynn says many of these debates boil down to differences over whether the interests of individuals should prevail, or those of groups.

Bill Lynn:  “And that’s the two poles of the problem that we’re facing, is doing right by individual spotted owls or barred owls, and doing right by the ecosystem as a whole.”

Lynn says the health of ecosystems is increasingly seen as an ethical good, as something that has broad value in its own right. And the consensus that emerged from the ethics panel was that killing some individuals of an abundant species – barred owls – was justified in the interests of preventing the extinction of an entire species – spotted owls.

Biologist Lowell Diller says that’s where he takes some comfort in what he sees as the unpleasant necessity of shooting barred owls.

Lowell Diller: “They’re really an amazing, remarkable bird. The unfortunate thing is that their success is at the expense of the spotted owl. And so if we want to have both species, we’re going to have to help the spotted owl out, at least in some areas.”

Diller says initial indications are that removing barred owls often leads to spotted owls moving back into the areas they’d been chased out of.

There are four test areas where killing barred owls will be studied; So far, only the Hoopa Valley Indian reservation in California has actually done it. The others -- two in Oregon and one in Washington -- are awaiting permits.  

The Friends of Animals lawsuit to stop the project is still pending.