The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber

Barred Owl. Photo: USFWS.

The United States Fish & Wildlife Service faced a difficult problem. The Northern Spotted Owl was vanishing from the forest, in spite of being listed as threatened, in 1990, under the Endangered Species Act, assigned critical habitat on public lands, and special protections related to the activities of local timber companies. Its numbers had continued to drop at a rate of 4% a year. Now suspicion was turning to the Barred Owl, whose assertive appearance in the Pacific Northwest could be causing the decline. So eight years ago the United States Fish & Wildlife Service convened a study group, to discuss the moral and practical dimensions raised by this imminent peril.

Heretofore the Northern Spotted Owl’s dwindling numbers had been thought to relate to the destruction of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, which was the owl’s habitat. The United States, the world leader in commercial logging, had produced and consumed more wood than any other country. Now less than 15% of forests remained which were more than 100 years old.

However, another possible agent might be the increased presence of Barred Owls, a larger and less specialized species, which had gradually moved in from the east. This species was soon stigmatized as invasive, and its possible role in the disappearance of the Spotted Owl began to be studied.

Verification of such a role was determined to be impossible without the drastic experiment of killing Barred Owls in specified areas, and observing the effect. This occasioned some moral uncertainty: the dark side of science.

As the late Lowell Diller, biologist for Green Diamond Timber Company, described shooting an owl: “When I went out to do it the first time, I was shaking. I had to steady myself. I wasn’t sure I could actually do it. It was so wrong to be shooting a beautiful raptor like this. It continues to be awkward to this day.”

An avalanche of computer model studies followed. Barred Owl killing caused immediate repopulation of habitat by Spotted Owls. Effects were frequently temporary, however. Many studies contradicted each other.

The USFWS-convened study group, or Barred Owl Stakeholders Group, was composed of government officials, timber industry representatives, environmental NGOs, indigenous tribes, and wildlife rehabilitators. They were provided with reading lists, including works by Aldo Leopold and Plato.They were trained in collective decision-making by Group Dynamic specialists. An Animal Ethicist attended their field trips and retreats. This was designed to be a Mount Sinai moment.

After lengthy deliberation, the Group concluded that Barred Owls were the driving force behind “poor population performance” of Northern Spotted Owls. Even the fact that the two species interbred was condemned as “genetic swamping.”

The USFWS decreed that Barred Owls should be destroyed.

Now, eight years later, thousands of Barred Owls have been shot, and the practice is expanding. Locally, Green Diamond’s new Habitat Conservation Plan has opened up its entire holdings to their extermination. In Washington and Oregon, and on public lands, Barred Owls are lured to a nearby branch and shot point blank.

Friends of Animals, a 63-year-old international nonprofit, had sued USFWS in 2014 over killing Barred Owls, in violation of the Migratory Species Act. They lost.

Now they are suing the feds for abuse of the ESA itself.

When Barred Owls are killed on private land, Northern Spotted Owls replace them. The USFWS decreed that, in exchange for shooting Barred Owls, termed “mitigation”, on their timberlands, the companies would be allowed to “take” the habitat of the returning Spotted Owls. Since such individual Spotted Owls are “floaters,” and therefore not shielded by regulations, they do not have the status that protects the forest they are reinhabiting.

According to USFWS, “the take of Spotted Owls on the temporarily reoccupied sites is more than offset by the value of the information gained from this experiment and its potential contribution to a long-term Barred Owl management strategy.”

This obsessively overzealous, deranged enforcement policy mirrors the nihilism of the current Administration, in its swift shredding of the Endangered Species Act. The very purpose of the ESA is to protect wildlife, in all its dynamic complexity. Science is being corrupted to the point of legalistic reductionism, and flies in the face of the rights of Mother Earth.

Ellen Taylor can be reached at