Sunday, February 20, 2011

When does one species become more important than another?

The spotted owl.

Steeped in controversy and the bane of northwest loggers. Is the continuation of this species (subspecies) more important than other similar species?

Fish and wildlife may think so.

If the spotted owl isn't able to compete, do we "thin out" its competitors? Is that right?

The ever-controversial northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1990, but despite the best efforts of lawmakers and conservationists the bird's population numbers continue to dwindle. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has a radical plan to help the raptor: kill some of the barred owls (S. varia) that are outcompeting their spotted cousins for food and habitat.

Spotted owls became notorious following several decades, starting in the 1980s, of back-and-forth lawsuits as environmentalists tried to end logging in the Pacific Northwest's old-growth forests, the habitat the owls depend on for their nests and food. Logging on federal land was banned in 1991, and since then logging in Oregon alone has declined 95 percent, from 4.9 billion board feet of timber in 1988 to just 240 million board feet in 2009, according to The Oregonian. But even with less of its habitat being destroyed the spotted owl population has yet to bounce back.

Aside from its shrinking habitat, the major threat now, according to the FWS, is the growing number of barred owls in the area. These birds are more aggressive, can live in any type of forest, and eat more types of food than spotted owls, making them more adaptable to the current Pacific Northwest landscape.

According to the FWS's latest draft recovery plan for the spotted owl: "Limited experimental evidence, correlational studies and copious anecdotal information all strongly suggest barred owls compete with spotted owls for nesting sites, roosting sites and food—and possibly predate spotted owls. The threat posed by barred owls to spotted owl recovery is better understood now than when the spotted owl was listed. Because the abundance of barred owls continues to increase, the effectiveness in addressing this threat depends on action as soon as possible."

The recovery plan doesn't spell it out how it would control the barred owl population, but The Oregonian reports that "over the next year, in three or more study areas from Washington [State] to northern California, they might kill 1,200 to 1,500 barred owls."

We have barred owls all over on the east coast. They are a handsome species - but... does their commonality make them less important?

Just something to think about. You can read more here.


Murphyfish said...

Hi Doug,
I take it that both owls are native American species and not imported in the past. If this is the case then my opinion, for what it's worth, is that the owls should find there own levels without human interference, far to much has been changed in ecosystems by our blind meddling in the past. I tend to go along with the theory that if you leave an area alone with no human interference that nature will fill the necessary gaps and a balance will be obtained. No one species is more important than any other (us included) as they are all inexorable linked - we just don't understand, or care how. Hope that makes sense!

tomed said...

It may be that the environmentalist is to be feared. I cannot believe any person, ordinary or environmentalist, could in good conscience suggest it is OK to kill one type bird to save a different type of bird. What will they think of next in their lust to play God? The rumor is, if the environmentalist population grows to a point where the land becomes overpopulated by environmentalists, they will recommend they eat their own young. :->

Doug said...

I thought that this article was crazy - i agree that we would most likely be better off if we just left well enough alone. The animals will adapt - or move - or not.

The best we can do is to create policies with the best interest of all organisms in mind.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.


PBurns said...

As I noted in an older post on population over on my own blog:

"Most environmentalists are believers in stasis: trees should not be cut down, dams should not be built, introduced species should be exterminated, climate should not shift, and genetically-modified crops should not be created. No animal or plant species should decline in numbers, nor should they dramatically increase in numbers. If a mountain appears to be 'naturally' bald (as in the Smokies) it should not be allowed to reforest. Animals from widely different locations, such as two species of parrot, should not be allowed to hybridize, nor should humans engage in mining or aquaculture."

But, of course, stasis never actually occurs anywhere, does it?

And, of course, a SUBspecies is not a species, is it?

The entire "northern" spotted owl debate is a science FAIL, but it serves its purpose as a "make weight" argument for forest protection.

Even if I like the result (forest protection), however, I do not have to salute the means to achieve it. I hate this owl for what it has done to sound science arguments.