“America Takes the Wildness Out of its Wilderness”

 America Takes the Wildness Out of its Wilderness

A plan to kill off barred owls illustrates this country’s misguided wildlife policy

By Michael Harris, FoA Wildlife Law Program Director


“In wildness is the hope of the world.” –John Muir

It is not known when the first barred owl decided to make its home in the Pacific Northwest.  Historically, the barred owl’s unique hooting call — “Who cooks for you?  Who cooks for you-all?” — was a sound associated with the forests and treed swamps of the eastern United States.  In the past century, human-caused landscape changes allowed barred owls to slowly expand their range into forests throughout most of the U.S.  Today, thousands of barred owls reside in California, Oregon and Washington.

As is often the case when an animal or plant species migrates into a new habitat, there are ecological ripple effects associated with the westward expansion of the barred owl.  The appearance of barred owls in the Pacific Northwest is not good news, for instance, for a far more famous member of the Strigidae family—the northern spotted owl. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, barred owls are “larger, more aggressive and more adaptable than the northern spotted owl” and are known to displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting and compete with them for food.  In some instances, government researchers have even observed barred owls interbreeding with or killing spotted owls.

The USFWS believes the barred owl poses such a threat to the long-term survival of the northern spotted owl that there is only one course of action—remove them from the Pacific Northwest.  Last September, USFWS issued a permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act authorizing the shooting of some 3,600 barred owls over the next few years.  Friends of Animals moved swiftly to challenge the issuance of this permit in court.  The lawsuit asserts that in issuing a scientific collecting permit under the MBTA, USFWS is required to show that the take of the barred owl is necessary for the species’ own conservation.  Because the permit is really to allow indiscriminate killing of the barred owl under the guise of protecting another species, it is inconsistent with the intent of the MBTA to protect species like the barred owl.


barred owl 2That USFWS would intentionally violate the law and issue a permit to allow the shooting of barred owls is disgraceful in its own right.  But it pales in comparison to what the issuance of the permit actually represents—an increasingly misguided approach to wildlife policy in the United States.

Indeed, the common thread among many recent decisions by wildlife agencies is the placing of the gun before science and ethics.  Orders to kill (or as wildlife officials prefer to call it, “cull”) animals as a means to “manage” their populations or to “protect” native flora and fauna are abundant.  In just the past few years, the government has overseen the slaughter of wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, elk, deer and numerous bird species, including both barred and snowy owls (see sidebar).

Shooting as a means of a wildlife management has become so prevalent for a rather simple reason: It allows wildlife officials to avoid having to make decisions that place ecological needs before economic wants.

The barred owl decision is reflective of this truth.  It is well documented that the northern spotted owl population has been in decline for more than 40 years. Habitat destruction, primarily due to logging of old growth forest was the primary reason the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1990.  And while nearly 6.9 million acres of forest are designated as habitat critical to the recovery and survival of the northern spotted owl, as recently as 2012, USFWS issued new exclusions from the designation to allow additional logging.


Only a generation ago, Americans had a vastly different view of wildlife.  The Conservation Movement of the 20th century, often associated with John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, helped instill in many a philosophical appreciation of the natural world.  Perhaps for the first time in human history, people began to see that our spirit is tied to the beauty and grace of the natural world, with all of its wildness.

In turn, these new sentiments gave popular support to the passage of laws intended to preserve and protect America’s wildlife and wild lands.  These laws were intended to protect ecological resources from ever-expanding human activities.  It is difficult to believe, but not so long ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in reviewing the application of the newly passed Endangered Species Act ESA to the construction of a massive hydroelectric project, concluded that it was clear that Congress’ intention in passing the ESA was “to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction—whatever the cost.”

The barred owl removal plan is just another sign that wildlife policy is moving in the wrong direction.  While human activities remain the primary threat to northern spotted owls and numerous other species, we have sunk so low as to scapegoat other animals. This must change—not merely for human salvation, but to ensure the innate rights of those animals being “taken.”


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