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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Focus on restoring healthy forests, lush habitats

The Columbian
Published: April 13, 2024, 6:03am

A proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not only startling, but triggers questions about the power of humans to control our natural environment.

The federal bureau’s latest plan to save the northern spotted owl involves killing nearly a half-million barred owls over the next three decades. The scheme adds to the oversized impact spotted owls have had on environmental policy in the Northwest for roughly 30 years.

Concern over the spotted owl — a species that is designated as threatened — contributed to a sharp reduction in the harvesting of old-growth forests and the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan. The forests, typically more than 120 years old, serve as habitat for the species.

Today, however, experts say the spotted owl is facing an equally imposing threat — the barred owl, which is slightly larger and is more aggressive. In 2021, a 17-year study led by Oregon State University concluded that “removal of invasive barred owls arrested the population decline of the northern spotted owl.”

That is the impetus behind the proposal to kill barred owls. As Kessina Lee, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Oregon, told Oregon Public Broadcasting: “Rather than choosing to conserve one bird over the other, this is about conserving two species. Spotted owls are fighting for their existence right now. Whereas, even if the service was able to remove that number of barred owls over the next 30 years, that would represent less than 1 percent of the global population of barred owls.”

Barred owls are native to eastern North America. But they are increasingly invading the habitat of the spotted owl, which ranges from British Columbia to Northern California, and are pushing out the smaller species. That creates a situation that is fraught with questions about morality, politics and conservation efforts.

In killing barred owls for moving into new habitat, officials would trigger a never-ending cycle. As Wayne Pacelle, president of the Center for a Human Economy points out, “If you don’t do it dutifully and religiously every single year for 30 years, it has no chance of succeeding.”

Politically, the proposal collides with the Northwest Forest Plan, which is scheduled to be updated this year. Ongoing negotiations will ultimately impact 17 national forests in the Northwest and establish policy involving old-growth stands, threatened species and the timber economy.

And finally, the issue brings focus to conservation efforts and how effectively government policy can alter our physical world. This is different from questions about climate change or dam removal to aid salmon; those issues involve human actions that have negative consequences. In such cases, the questions revolve around whether humans can alter their behavior in order to reap environmental benefits. In the case of the barred owl, the plan is to shoot them for behaving like barred owls.

Three decades of dedicated federal policy has not prevented further decline in spotted owl populations. Nor has it reversed the impact from a century of thinning old-growth forests or a recent increase in the threat of wildfires — factors that have diminished spotted owl habitat. It seems unlikely that shooting hundreds of thousands of barred owls will slow the evolutionary process that is taking place in the forests of the Northwest.

Which brings us to the larger issue. Rather than focusing on a proposal that might or might not work, policymakers should work on restoring healthy forests and building lush habitat for whichever species reside there.