Owls and Logging: Old Problems, New Twists–Why the Interior Dept. is Gung-ho to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
One night walk we felt a huge bird fly right over us for a short distance over the picnic area, then call in a coaxing, almost sweet voice. A smaller bird flew through the dark to the large one. They cooed. We thought we were witnessing a parent owl teaching its young one to fly. Ten years ago one dark and overcast early spring morning, we spotted (no puns intended) a giant, all-white owl. This winter we are reading about Arctic Snowy Owls being spotted much farther south than usual. Climate change effects, winds and weather happen. Actually we suspect this kind of event has been happening for a while. We have not seen many owls here in “our” forest in the daytime. Rarely, one will be disturbed during the day and fly across the meadow from forested hill to forested hill. They fly low –swiftly and silently, beating the air with huge wings then glide to refuge. Big, white and brown blurs, we haven’t seen enough definition of features to tell what kind of owls they are. Now the question of what kind or species of owl has new implications of life and death for the owls. Not only what kind, but does it “really belong here?” Do the barred owls have the “right” to mate with spotted owls? In fact, one definition of a species is that they are a discreet population that cannot mate with another. If they can, they are not separate species.
The barred and hybrids owls may well not be the “aggressive” or “invasive” bully species they are being portrayed as, ruthless and destroying the spotted owls. They may well be the spotted owls’ one last chance at survival and passing on its genes. The spotted owl’s gene pool (read population numbers) shrank due to human-generated loss of old growth habitat. What little mature forest is preserved may take more time, maybe decades to re-establish the whole and complete ecosystem that sustains one species and all species, let alone a sub-group of species. All life is always interdependent, as we all have learned. Maybe allowing the wolf recovery that US Fish and Wildlife started is wiser than anyone knows yet. One reason that the spotted owls are still declining (even after a temporary halt in old growth logging) may be that the lack of intermediate predators like the wolves who eat a lot of rodents removes a biological drive for the various rodents to reproduce at higher rates that is necessary to sustain owls, also. No wolves, fewer rodents, fewer owls, spotted or otherwise. If the spotted owls find their cousins the barred owls acceptable, why do we arrogant humans think we know better?
We have seen big ravens act aggressive as most other birds do during mating times, chasing away competitors. It is more dramatic when a bird has a long wingspan. We have also seen ravens coo and woo like love-birds, during the courtship period near Solstice. Are the ravens an aggressive species? Depends if you ask a meadowlark or a corvinologist. The answer is, sometimes, in some circumstances, like discouraging mating competition. Are barred owls aggressive and/or invasive? Maybe, during mating fights with other males, or…? Or is the real scenario more complex? One man’s aggressive or invasive species may be a Northern Spotted Owl’s mate and its only hope to pass on its genes. (We don’t know many details yet… maybe it is the females fussing and driving off the competition.)
Over long years of observation we have heard at least five distinctive owl calls, suggesting five different species of owls have come through this valley where two branches of Spencer Creek meet. Over a period of thirty-five years we observed calls that suggest owls seem to deal with shifting territory as a given condition of owl life. We have collected a few different species of owl feathers, seen lots of owl barf under tall old trees, which has a high amount of little bones and fur in it. (You can always tell owl barf. Dogs love it.) They seem to eat mostly the small rodents, a useful diet as far as humans are concerned, otherwise we could be over-run with gophers and moles.
On Feb. 28, 2012 a new federal plan from the Interior Department and an accompanying presidential memo to save the spotted owl (in and of itself a worthy goal) was announced: we can have our forest cake and eat it too. Yes, we can save the spotted owls and continue to log in critical habitat. How you may ask? Isn’t loss of big old trees and the total forest habitat a major factor for the decline of the Northern Spotted Owl? Why no, it is really quite simple. The decline of the Northern Spotted Owl is really due to their mates, the Barred Owls. Just shoot the varmints, those pesky barred and hybrid owls. Never mind that we are once again telling the natural world whom to mate and how and where to live, how to behave. Let’s log again. That will solve all our economic problems. Hey, habitat may not be so important. It is the barred owls fault.
Sadly, the industry is just that; an “industry” whose operations are on a vast scale. The world wide Timber Industry does not use eco-foresters, low impact techniques such as draft horses, or skilled North American labor. In the 1980s, the timber industry blamed the spotted owl, a convenient scape-”bird,” while shifting industrial operations to S.E. Asia. Out-sourcing has been the real culprit why hundreds of thousands of union jobs were lost and logging towns have been dying on the vine. I would not trust the timber industry to spit to Avenue K let alone manage environmentally-sensitive logging in critical habitat. Now that they have over-logged British Columbia, Malaysia and Brazil, the Timber interests are looking back to the U.S. Pacific Northwest for raw logs that they can ship to markets like Japan, etc.
So, can we go back to industrial-scale logging if we only shoot the barred owl to save the spotted owl from its new mate? The scientist, Eric Forsman, a USFS researcher who started it all was quoted in the Associated Press story by Matthew Daly and (our brilliant) Jeff Barnard as saying,”There are not enough shotguns. It would be just like trying to wipe out the coyotes.” I guess the folks in Washington are trying to get prepared for an economic upswing. With commercial and residential construction, forest road building, heavy machinery manufacturing, etc. A jobs (–note our repressed excitement and reverential tone of voice–) making policy by this current Administration, or the next? Yeah! There is only one little problem. What comes first, the spotted owl or the owl egg?