Friday, September 23, 2011

Should Another Owl Be Killed So This One Can Live?

Once the West's poster child for endangered species, the Northern Spotted Owl is now threatened by one of its own kind --- a striped cousin called The Barred Owl.  The feathers are flying --- among biologists, conservationists and animal ethicists.

The effort to save the northern spotted owl during the last 20 years has helped preserve old-growth forests, even if it sparked the 'timber wars,' battles between conservationists, timber companies and the construction industry. But now the owl faces a new threat: a closely-related cousin, the barred owl. This larger, brasher, faster-breeding transplant from the East Coast has invaded the spotted owl's territory, which ranges from Northern California to Washington State.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing an experiment to selectively take out barred owls, by lethal and nonlethal means, to determine if this would give the spotted owl any advantage. But that's sticking in the craw of some conservationists, birding groups and animal-rights advocates because the experiment alone could mean killing hundreds, if not thousands, of these birds.

The barred owl removal plan poses an ethical question to the public: Does it make sense to kill some species to save others? At what point should we intervene? Or should we step in at all? "Such questions often go unarticulated, even though public agencies confront these hard choices all the time," says William Lynn, a bioethicist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who was brought in by the Fish and Wildlife Service to convene discussions with stakeholders on the ethical issues. Even before wildlife officials release their draft environmental impact statement this fall, the controversy is generating hot debate among conservationists, wildlife biologists and animal rights activists. 

Francesca Lyman reports for The Sacramento Bee California Forum section September 18th, 2011.

IMAGE: John and Karen Hollingsworth, US Fish and Wildlife Service