The pressure to reach for a gun to help save one animal from another is stronger than ever. And it has triggered a conservation problem from hell.
By Warren Cornwall
We usually think conservation means saving animals. But its history is tinged with blood. John Audubon, a patron saint of the American conservation movement, killed hundreds of birds, partly for sport and partly for specimens to pose for his paintings. Aldo Leopold, a father of ecological science, endorsed killing wolves to increase deer populations.
Today, as climate change pushes animals into each other’s overlapping territories and humans drive ever more species to the brink of extinction, the pressure to reach for a gun to help save one animal from another is stronger than ever. In recent years, the federal government has shot Arctic foxes to guard the nests of rare Steller’s eider ducks. In Texas and Oklahoma, hunters blast cowbirds that take over the nests of endangered black-capped vireos. Sea lions have been put to death for the sake of salmon on the Northwest’s Columbia River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to kill 16,000 double-crested cormorants in 2015 to help those same salmon. But the most controversial case may prove to be the northern spotted owl.
The spotted owl, an icon of the environmental movement, is a shy bird that favors ancient forests. Its declining numbers led to its listing under the Endangered Species Act, bringing a halt to most old-growth logging in Northwest federal forests in the early 1990s. Today, the migration of the barred owl from its original East Coast home poses a potentially fatal threat. Bigger and more aggressive than its smaller cousin, the barred owl has gradually pushed south in a seemingly inexorable wave since arriving in western Canada in the mid-twentieth century. Wherever it turns up in large numbers, spotted owls start to disappear. Biologists suspect spotted owls abandon their nests when they are driven off by the barred owl. In at least one case, a barred owl appeared to have killed and eaten a spotted owl.
Alarmed by the rapid decline of the remaining spotted owls, desperate biologists, federal bureaucrats, and environmentalists have hit upon a last-ditch, bloody scheme: shoot enough barred owls to create breathing room for spotted owls. Last winter, after years of studying the pros and cons of various approaches, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service embarked on a six-year experiment in four small parts of the Northwest (the initial four-year plan stretched to six, due to budget problems). Trained marksmen killed 71 barred owls in the first season, a number that could grow to as many as 3,600 owls over the span of the entire experiment. The tests are designed to show what it would take to really make a difference for the spotted owls. If the experiment is deemed a success, it could pave the way for death warrants for thousands of owls every year for decades, if not forever. It would be the largest known mass killing of raptors.
For bird lovers or for anyone with a soft spot for wild animals, this is a problem from hell. Nobody is happy with the options. Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, summed it up neatly: “On the one hand, killing thousands of owls is completely unacceptable. On the other hand, the extinction of the spotted owl is completely unacceptable.”
The shootings have prompted an unusual amount of soul-searching. For the first time ever, the Fish and Wildlife Service—an agency with plenty of blood on its hands—convened people to grapple with the ethics of killing one animal for the sake of another. How should humans get involved in a fight between species? Step into the boots of people on the front lines of the owl wars. Would you open fire?
Finger on the Trigger
The first time Lowell Diller shot a barred owl, he almost couldn’t pull the trigger. He was standing in a grove of Douglas firs and redwoods outside the tiny northern California mill town of Korbel on a damp February afternoon in 2009.
He had lured the bird with a speaker perched on a stump, programmed to send out the barred owl’s haunting eight-note call: who-who, who-whooo . . . who-who, who-whooo. Now the female was perched just 30 meters away, an easy shot with his 20-gauge shotgun. Even in the fading light, he could see the distinctive white and brown stripes down its breast.
Diller had partly hoped no owl would answer his call. He raised the shotgun to his shoulder and tried to take aim. But he was shaking so badly, he feared he would miss. He lowered the gun, taking deep breaths and whispering to himself to calm down, to relax. He braced himself against a tree to steady the gun, told himself it was for the sake of science, and fired.
“It just fundamentally seemed so wrong to be shooting one of these birds,” said Diller, who recently retired from his job as a wildlife biologist with the Seattle-based Green Diamond Resource company. “You just don’t shoot raptors.”
Diller’s queasiness embodies the profound unease people are feeling in the Northwest. In the end, Diller weighed the options and chose what he felt was the lesser of two evils. Doing nothing, he feared, meant accepting the demise of the spotted owl. And that, for him, meant that the killing experiment was worthwhile. If someone needed to do the dirty work, Diller felt he shouldn’t ask someone else to take that job. Since that first day, he has shot 96 barred owls. It hasn’t gotten much easier.
This past spring, he and a handful of marksmen finished the first season of the experiment. They called it quits around the time eggs hatched, because they didn’t want to orphan chicks. The Fish and Wildlife Service draws the line at leaving young birds to slowly starve. This underscores the odd ways ethics can pop up in wildlife management. The shooters will be back in the fall, trying to kill those same owls.
The Fate of a Species Trumps that of the Individual
How many barred owls would you kill to save a spotted owl? One? A hundred? A thousand? The calculus is straightforward for Dave Werntz: as many as it takes. Werntz is the science and conservation director for the environmental group Conservation Northwest, based in Bellingham, Washington. He sees the spotted owl as a rare, native species threatened by a new arrival that will likely survive quite well even if thousands are killed every year. So he supports an even more ambitious killing program than the one that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering. He likens owl removal to pulling a weed. “I don’t see the barred owl as much different [from] addressing Himalayan blackberry or other domineering species that are impacting our landscape,” he said.
His life has been intertwined with northern spotted owls for more than a quarter-century. In the late 1980s, he wandered the forests of southwest Washington, hooting like an owl. He was working for the U.S. Forest Service, counting spotted owls and tracking where they nested. It was the peak of the Northwest’s legendary timber wars, a time when protesters chained themselves to logging equipment to save vestiges of old-growth forest, loggers burned spotted owls in effigy, and federal courts took control of much of the region’s public timberlands—in part to protect the owl.
Repelled by clearcuts, and fascinated with the owls and old-growth forests, Werntz went back to school. He studied under University of Washington ecologist Jerry Franklin, a pioneer of a new understanding of the richness of old-growth forests. Werntz has been on the front lines of the fight over the owls ever since. In the 1990s, Werntz worked with environmental groups to push for stronger owl protections. Later he toiled to stop the timber industry from rolling back logging restrictions.
The politically charged history of owls and old growth makes the case of the barred owl even more fraught with controversy. Since humans destroyed spotted owl habitat and brought the species to this dire moment, Werntz believes people have an obligation to save the last remaining ones.
Nevertheless, Werntz frames the killing of barred owls as primarily a scientific matter, not a political or ethical one. This is a view commonly espoused by conservation scientists trained to think in terms of the fate of entire species rather than individual animals. While he doesn’t relish killing barred owls, Werntz sees it as necessary to protect a native species integral to the forests he loves. Biodiversity trumps squeamishness about bloodletting.
The Individual Matters
If you want to make a conservation biologist squirm, try this question: “How do you think the animal feels?” Scientists usually think in terms of populations and species. Individuals form the raw materials for the grand Darwinian drama of survival and evolution. Feelings are, by and large, beside the point.
But for some, the barred owl is a majestic creature endowed with animal intelligence—not a pest. Fish and Wildlife Service officials learned that at public meetings about the owl removal plan. They came to talk science. Many in the crowd spoke of how they felt about the owls as individuals.
Now a growing number of researchers are trying to bridge those two perspectives. They argue that the conventional approach to conservation risks ignoring the lives and experiences of wildlife—making for poor science and shaky ethics. Their new field, “compassionate conservation,” draws on a body of research documenting the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. Injured chickens self-medicate. Crustaceans learn to avoid pain, and they respond to stress in a way similar to that of vertebrates. And rats and dogs—even bees—are capable of pessimism. The more we learn about how animals think and feel, the more we empathize with them and the less we can ignore the suffering we inflict.
“The guiding principle of compassionate conservation is ‘First, do no harm,’ which means the life of each and every individual animal is valued,” writes Marc Bekoff in his “Animal Emotions” column at Psychology Today. Bekoff, a University of Colorado professor emeritus and animal behavior researcher, is a leading voice in the compassionate conservation field. “Trading off individuals of one species for the good of individuals of another species isn’t acceptable,” he says. That means no killing of barred owls.
Yet for many people, the owl dilemma falls into a gray area in which there is tension between the fate of the individual and the survival of a species.
Bill Lynn started out suspicious of the idea of shooting owls. An ethicist at Loyola Marymount University and Clark University in Massachusetts, he was hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to run stakeholder meetings about the ethics of the lethal experiment. At first, he suspected the government’s killing program was a knee-jerk response that showed little regard for the animals. But the spotted owl’s dire situation changed his mind. He concluded that the experiments, if done as humanely as possible, would be a “sad good”—something unfortunate yet worth doing to help save a species. But he won’t endorse a region-wide war on barred owls until he sees how high the death toll would be.
What’s the Exit Strategy?
Even if we manage to negotiate the moral thicket of killing one owl to save another—and emerge at the other end with gun at the ready—we run headlong into a practical question: What’s the exit strategy? Can we kill 10,000 barred owls every year forever?
That’s the figure some experts in the field use when they talk about what it will take to truly help spotted owls recover in the Northwest. On the optimistic side, some (such as Diller and Werntz) believe that as Pacific Northwest forests continue to recover from logging and more owl habitat opens up, the killing could slow down or stop after a few decades. Others worry that new habitat will just fill up with even more barred owls, creating a never-ending killing operation.
“I think in the long run we simply can’t control barred owl populations on a large scale,” said Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist and pre-eminent spotted owl researcher. “It would be incredibly expensive and essentially you’d have to do it forever.”
To date, studies on the effectiveness of lethal barred owl removal have been limited in scope and scale. In small tests on private forestland in northern California, spotted owls returned to nearly all their former nest sites after people shot barred owls that had taken over, according to Diller, who took part in the experiment. Where barred owls were left alone, he said, spotted owl numbers continued to fall. Those results have yet to be published.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for its part, hasn’t offered a long-term plan of attack. They’re awaiting the results of their six-year experiment. That experiment is expected to cost $4 million—more than $1,000 per dead bird. And it will cover only two percent of spotted owl habitat in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. The other 98 percent is the worrisome part.
The logistics alone are daunting. First, there’s the problem of finding enough qualified shooters. It’s tricky to tell the difference between a barred owl and a spotted owl. For the experiment, the government is relying on trained gunmen. But declaring open season on barred owls could be a recipe for unacceptable collateral damage.
Then there’s the politics. Even if it is technically feasible, will the public get behind an open-ended mass owl killing with no clear exit strategy? Kent Livezey, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist, has his doubts. “Even if you got the public to agree the first year, you just need some photographer to go out with them and show a bunch of dead owls,” he said.
Livezey worked for years to save spotted owls, helping to craft the plan for their recovery. But he’s personally repelled by the shooting plan, and he bowed out of the owl work when it came time to devise the experiment. For him, there were just too many dead raptors, and the plan set a bad precedent for other clashes between wildlife. He would rather see people pick a fight that can be won. He imagines using guns to halt the advance of barred owls south into the territory of the California spotted owl, a species that’s not rare yet. But it also means leaving the northern spotted owl without armed bodyguards. “Personally, I would just let nature run its course,” he said.
Warren Cornwall is an environmental and science journalist living in Bellingham, Washington. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times, Slate, the Boston Globe Magazine, Outside online, and National Geographic News. As an environmental reporter at the Seattle Times, he tracked spotted owls in the Cascade Mountains and barred owls in the Seattle suburbs.