Spotted owls and Sophie’s choices

Last month, I went owling — or ‘hooting,’ as I stubbornly call it, because that sounds better — in an event led by the local Audubon Society. (If you want to see the place you live from a new perspective and meet interesting people, check out local Audubon events, I highly recommend them.) In addition to a lovely guide from the Audubon Society, we were accompanied by a wildlife biologist who owls for a living, as it were — he conducts surveys and prepares reports for businesses that need to conform with environmental regulations.

We drifted from place to place, called, and waited to see who called back (here are some owl sounds if you’d like sound effects). Several pygmy owls struck up lively conversations with us, a screech owl offered up its strange bouncing call, a great horned owl coughed in our direction. At the end of the night, we saw a barred owl, who swept in silently to investigate and then hooted furiously at us when he found out that we were just a bunch of humans shining flashlights at him, rather than the expected rival owl.

Living where I do, where logging was once a major industry, one owl in particular tends to occupy a lot of air time: The spotted owl, one of which we did indeed hear. Our wildlife biologist made a note, unsure about whether MRC knew about this particular activity site, and we moved on to another location, not wanting to draw other owls there. Inevitably, though, a conversation about spotted owl conservation rose up.

Those familiar with issues in timber country know that the spotted owl is the subject of much infuriated commentary, because these lovely little birds are endangered, and thus when they show up in the middle of the woods — as they are wont to do, for that is their home — it creates a bureaucratic snarl, with timber companies required to take some mitigating steps to avoid disturbing them. They’re endangered for a lot of reasons, and destruction of their habitat is certainly one, as is the arrival of barred owls, which are more adaptable, and thus harry their spotted cousins out.

So some people in the timber industry loathe spotted owls — one of my all time favourite bumper stickers from the ’90s and the height of the furore over owls and timber policy was ‘save a tree: wipe your ass with a spotted owl.’ And some bird people loathe barred owls, advocating for control via ‘removal,’ a polite way of saying that some biologists come in and shoot them, thereby reducing competition for spotted owls.

Some members of the group commented that this seems rather unsporting, and the way of nature is change, sometimes rapid change. If spotted owls cannot adjust, they argued, perhaps we should just let them go the way of other things that haven’t been able to hack it — even if the reason they’re struggling is because of human intervention and interference. Barred owls, after all, are only doing what comes naturally as they expand their territory, and it’s not their fault that we created the circumstances that allowed them to do so.

There was a bit of brisk back and forth but it got me thinking about how control is used in conservation, and how the belief that we need to protect vulnerable species is sometimes used to justify doing really terrible and destructive things. To save something fragile and beautiful, we poison and shoot and trap and snare. Our actions were the problem in the first place, and our followup is equally interventionist — what happens when these efforts fail, when the invader returns, when we inadvertently create another problem we couldn’t predict?

Animal lovers sometimes think of conservation as very animal-centric, and respectful of all life. That’s not actually the case, though, with many conservationists maintaining a very clear hierarchy of priorities for the species they interact with, believing that some are worth more than others, or that some must be sacrificed in order to save those that are most vulnerable. This often gets publicised when the invasive species is one humans keep as pets — wild horses, dogs, or goats, for example, or the endless war on feral cats, which has no actual scientific basis but certainly seems to make people think they’re doing something useful and important. But it also happens with a variety of species we don’t keep in our homes or on our farms, including in settings like zoos, where euthanising animals because they’re genetic dead ends or don’t further a breeding programme inevitably sparks a firestorm of outrage.

I love animals myself, but I’m also aware that sometimes conservation requires making hard choices. Perhaps we shouldn’t intervene to save the spotted owl, and should instead let it quietly die out, allowing barred animals to fan out across the landscape, pushing their brethren away. Doing nothing about barred animals will almost certainly equate to doing something to spotted owls. And facilitating their spread could have other unintended consequences we don’t understand, beyond the loss of a sweet little bird with an interesting call.

Listening to owls instinctively hoot back at us in response to our calls, and watching the barred owl swoop across the beams of our lights to settle indignantly on the branch of a tree, I thought about the strange tension and perennial unease that is our relationship with wildlife. We like to think of nature as majestic and beautiful, untamed, but in fact it’s been shaped through centuries — millennia, in some places — of human activity, and everything we do carries weight. Every decision we make, likewise, is one with radiating consequences, and that includes inaction. Do we let spotted owls disappear because they aren’t fit enough to contend with a human-dominated world? Or do we decide that they’re worth conserving, that as an apex predator, perhaps we should attempt to conserve the world around us, even if that involves inconveniencing timber companies and offing a few barred owls?

Image: Female Spotted Owl, Emily Brouwer | NPS, Flickr