Ten years ago, an allegedly declining number of northern spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest was used by environmentalists and the Clinton administration to virtually shut down the cutting of so-called old growth forests on public lands across the region.
The policy, not surprisingly, has been catastrophic for the area’s economy and turned many once-thriving timber towns into rural ghettos, with high unemployment rates and increased reliance on government handouts, including federal “spotted owl payments.”
But a decade later, what has resulted from this incredibly costly effort to save the beloved spotted owl? Nothing much, as it turns out. The owl’s numbers aren’t rebounding, as expected, and this trend has less to do with the preservation of forests, scientists are now realizing, than with the predatory predilections of a winged rival, the barred owl.
The second owl, originally from Canada, has been involved in a century-long invasion of the spotted owl’s habitat. And as invasive species are prone to do, it is wiping out the established animal. Further complicating the situation is the two species evidently have interbred, raising questions about which of the owl variations, if any, merit continued federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
But rather than admit the reason for the owl’s problems isn’t really the harvesting of trees and reverse direction, or acknowledge that the mistake has needlessly cost thousands of people their livelihoods, owl advocates seem poised to execute a classic bait and switch. One expert on a panel currently advising the federal government about what to do next recently suggested that still more government actions would be needed to “save” an owl not being wiped out by man, but by another owl.
“The spotted owl really taught us a lot about conservation in the last decade in terms of (preserving habitat),” the expert said. “Now it’s going to teach us what kind of sacrifices we have to make to battle some of these new threats.”
Another expert suggested the only way to rebuild spotted owl populations was to begin killing off barred owls and see what happens.
But all this case really has “taught us” is the folly that ensues when the government acts based on flawed, biased or immature science. And we don’t see what “sacrifices” owl experts or wildlife advocacy groups have made at all in this situation — all the sacrifices have been made by the thousands of people who have lost their livelihoods as a result of this debacle, and the taxpayers now paying to support them.