Jim Petersen in the Wall Street Journal explains how the Endangered Species Act made it possible for disappearing owls to function as surrogates for non-endangered trees.
Last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a call for proposals to develop a recovery plan for the northern spotted owl. It’s about time: The owl was added to the nation’s burgeoning list of threatened and endangered species nearly 16 years ago. That it took so long helps explain why only 10 of the 1,264 species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) have ever recovered.
If my gut reading is correct, the owl won’t be No. 11. It is already doomed across much of its range, and the reason is well known among field biologists who have been observing the bird for some 20 years. More aggressive barred owls are pushing them out of their 21-million-acre home range, or killing them, or both. In any case, spotted owls are fighting a losing battle, a fact that has me wondering if the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t whistling past the graveyard.
Barred owls, not to be confused with common barn owls, migrated from their native East Coast environs a century or more ago. No one knows why, and until they started killing already-threatened spotted owls, no one cared. Now they do. Just how long it will take the barreds to finish off their brethren isn’t known, but the situation has become so precarious that a federal biologist recently opined that shooting barred owls might be the only way to save spotted owls.
How and why the government failed so miserably in its costly attempt to protect spotted owls is a sordid tale that illustrates what happens when science is politicized. Begin with the fact that protecting owls was never the objective: Saving old-growth forests from chainsaws was. The owl was simply a surrogate — a stand-in for forests that do not themselves qualify for ESA protection. But if a link could be established between harvesting in old-growth forests and declining spotted owl numbers, the bird might well qualify for listing — a line of thinking that in 1988 led Andy Stahl, then a resource analyst with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, to famously declare, “Thank goodness the spotted owl evolved in the Northwest, for if it hadn’t, we’d have to genetically engineer it. It’s the perfect species for use as a surrogate.”