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What To Do About the Northern Spotted Owl?

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As many of you know, I grew up around the controversy around the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest and what that meant for the timber industry. My dad was a plywood mill worker who felt his job was threatened by the owl. In fact, it was not. Jobs were threatened by a lot of other issues that were more important than protecting the owl–export policy that shipped unprocessed logs to Japan, automation, and degradation of the resource that led to capital mobility out of the Northwest being far more important. But for environmentalists, the spotted owl was the tool that allowed them to save the old growth forests, which were only used by a handful of mills by the 1990s anyway. For some towns, owl protection did decimate them, but by that point, we were only talking about a few years of old growth timber left anyway. It’s not as if this caused the long-term economic dislocations that have left these towns behind at the same time that Portland, Seattle, and other Northwestern cities have become global destinations for both tourism and capital.

So I decided to dedicate my career as a historian to working this all out, first in Empire in Timber and now in the book I have under contract with the University of Washington Press on how these intersecting issues of class and nature in a changing economy have shaped modern Northwestern politics. One of the key issues that underlies the period since the protection of most of the old-growth timber that began in the Clinton administration is the fact that the environmentalists chose an imperfect tool to save the forests. Even in areas where all the old growth was saved, spotted owl populations continue to fall, mostly because they are being outbred and sometimes eaten by barred owls.

Ashley Braun has a good piece on this at Audubon, including people killing barred owls in order to save the spotted owl:

Night hangs over the Hoopa Valley Reservation. Stars spill toward the evergreen horizon as Mark Higley, a wildlife biologist for the Hoopa Valley Tribe, places a speaker on an unpaved road. Soon a recorded bird call—Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?—tumbles down the Northern California valley. A few minutes later, the faintest of replies. These hoots slowly build as the Barred Owl draws closer, bracing for a turf war, until the calls are almost on top of one another, on top of Higley, filling the entire night.

Then a handsome young male materializes in a copse of hardwoods, calling expectantly. Higley points a 12-gauge shotgun at the dark-eyed bird, eponymous horizontal bars resplendent on its upper breast, and the crack that follows shatters the air. Wings splayed, the Barred Owl lingers a moment before gravity prevails.

The digital owl continues to call from the speaker, and before long another voice resonates through the woods: a female. The second owl swoops up the valley like an echo, and Higley reprises this sober scene. Call, aim, blast, fall. Tufts of down float across the road like moths.

After placing the dead male in the truck bed, Higley smooths the bird’s neck feathers—a movement at once quick and gentle. He does not enjoy killing owls. But he tries to extract as much purpose from it as possible: swabbing their microbes, drawing their blood, collecting their stomach contents, anything that might be of use to science. He has been sending the bodies to museums and universities, but the birds are saturating collections like they are saturating Northwest forests. “Now my freezers are packed full of birds I can’t get rid of,” he says. “Eventually I’ll have to start burying them.”

Higley performs this heavy task night after night as part of a broader effort to save another raptor, the Northern Spotted Owl. A polarizing icon of the Pacific Northwest, the Spotted Owl captured the national spotlight during the so-called Timber Wars of the 1980s and ’90s that pitted loggers against newly minted environmental activists. The bird’s 1990 listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) reverberated through the region and reshaped forest management. Yet scientists say it is now spiraling dangerously close to extinction.

To me, this is kind of nuts. I don’t know what to do about the expansion of the barred owl, but the right answer is probably nothing. This is mostly just natural selection taking place. It’s probably true that without the two centuries of white migration and industrial capitalism that has transformed the Northwest, the spotted owl is not being outcompeted by barred owls. But now that the two birds are together, the barred owl is obviously going to win and slaughtering the barred owls is not something I can understand, except around the political point that if the spotted owl goes extinct, the timber industry is going to try and cut down the rest of the old growth timber. I don’t think they’d succeed–most of it is protected now for other reasons and most of the rest of that has either burned or will burn in the next few years thanks to climate change caused fires destroying what makes the Northwest so great. But I am really uncomfortable with how this is all happening.

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