In desperation to save the rare northern spotted owl, biologists are doing something that goes against their core — shooting another owl that's rapidly taking over spotted owl territory across the northwest.
"If we don't do it, what we're essentially doing, in my view, is dooming the spotted owl to extinction," says Lowell Diller, senior biologist for Green Diamond, a timber company.
The decision to shoot the more aggressive barred owls has been wrenching for biologists and the federal government. But one of the biologists says the consequence of not stepping in would be so dire that it justifies what he calls this Sophie's Choice.
A few decades ago, the plight of the spotted owl sparked an epic struggle between environmentalists and the timber industry. In 1990, the federal government put the spotted owl on the endangered species list, giving it a "threatened" designation. Protecting the bird, and the old growth forests where they nest, accelerated the decline of the logging industry in the northwest.
At the time, small numbers of the bigger barred owls, which are native to the east, had already made their way across the continent and into historic spotted owl turf. Now, they are outcompeting spotted owls — disrupting their nesting and eating their food.
During the 1990s, a few barred owls showed up in an area of forest along Redwood Creek that was prime spotted owl territory. Barred owls, which reproduce much faster than spotted owls, now claim nearly all this territory. No spotted owls have nested in this stretch of forest in recent years.
"It's very upsetting and there's nothing that's going to stop this expansion of barred owls from continuing," says Diller, who has studied spotted owls for 25 years. The only feasible solution, Diller says, forces him to go against his nature.
"I Hate It Every Time I Go Out And Do It"
In the forest along Redwood Creek, Diller plays a recording of a barred owl, and soon a pair of real barred owls starts hooting. Barred owls are aggressively territorial — the birds are trying to intimidate what they think is another owl intruding on their turf.
The female buzzes past. Then she perches in plain view, a tactic meant to ward off interlopers that puts the birds in shooting range.
"I think you can appreciate, standing here, how easy it would be — and when I say easy, I mean technically easy or simple — to lethally remove that bird," Diller says.
Diller's a hunter, but he was taught never to kill a bird of prey or anything you didn't plan to eat. At first, someone else did the shooting. But, he says, this felt hypocritical, so he started doing it himself.
Diller recalls the first time he took a shot. "I was so nervous about what I was doing, and emotional, that I had to steady myself against a tree."
Over the past five years, Diller has killed more than 70 barred owls with a shotgun. Each time, he says, it felt "totally wrong."
"I hate it every time I go out and do it," he says.
Removing barred owls without killing them is not feasible, he says. He calculates it takes more than 40 hours to catch a live barred owl — compared to about two hours to shoot and collect one. Finding new homes for the barred owl would also be time-consuming and traumatic for the birds.
Shoot To Save, Or Leave It To Nature?
Barred owls are not rare. Still, shooting them has presented such a quandary to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it has taken more than seven years come to this solution.
On the other hand, the Fish and Wildlife Service can't ignore the invasion because it's legally required to help rare species under the Endangered Species Act. The agency even hired an ethicist, Clark University's Bill Lynn, to help wildlife experts resolve the dilemma.
"People recognized there's a crisis for the spotted owl, that barred owls are part of the cause of that crisis and, so, they reluctantly, essentially justified the experimental removal of barred owls," Lynn says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is starting a four-year experiment to kill up to 3,600 barred owls in the northwest.
The birds will be removed from four different forests, two in Northern California, one in Oregon and one in Washington. Some birds will be captured but not killed.
The federal government says if spotted owls come back after barred owls are removed, it may decide to kill barred owls over a broader area.
An advocacy group, Friends of Animals, is suing to stop the experiment.
The group doesn't believe the government can make a moral argument for shooting an animal, even if it would benefit another animal.
"To go in and say we're going to kill thousands and thousands of barred owls, literally forever, I don't see that as being a solution. At some point you have to allow these species to either figure out a way to coexist or for nature to run its course," says Michael Harris, legal director of Friends of Animals.
But Diller argues this is an "absurd thing to say" after all the ways humans have altered nature. People cut down most of the forests that used to host barred owls. They made lots of changes to the Great Plains, which he believes helped the barred owl move across the continent.
So, he says, people should at least try to save the spotted owl. And nearly everywhere he shot barred owls, he says, spotted owls came back — and had owlets too.
Along the Mad River, Diller scrambles through a young redwood forest to track down a pair of spotted owls. He feeds them mice so he can see the bands on their legs. The polka dot markings tells him the owl settled here in 2009, after he shot barred owls nearby.
For Diller, seeing rare spotted owls thrive in this forest is success worth the agony of shooting barred owls.
"Probably what makes spotted owls so special is the fact that as you just witnessed, they fly right up to you," Diller says. "You get to interact with them. It's almost impossible as a biologist not to fall in love with these birds — they're just the neatest animal."
Diller hopes the public also will see the value in saving this beautiful creature.
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Nearly a quarter of a century ago, an epic struggle between environmentalists and the timber industry landed the northern spotted owl on the endangered species list. Protecting the bird accelerated the decline of the timber industry in the Northwest. Well, now, another owl from the east is forcing the spotted owl out of its territory.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on a radical experiment to fix the problem.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: It's a moonlit night when Timber company biologist Lowell Diller takes me to a forest that used to be a prime territory for spotted owls in Northern California.
LOWELL DILLER: When I first came here and we started the study, there would be another pair of spotted owls like every mile along the creek.
SHOGREN: Barred owls showed up in the 1990s. They didn't cause much trouble. But now they're so many of them; they're pushing their rare relatives out. It's happening across the Pacific Northwest.
DILLER: It's very upsetting to see that happening and there's nothing that's going to stop this expansion of barred owls from continuing, up to the point where they literally cause the extinction of the spotted owl.
SHOGREN: Diller has studied spotted owls here for 25 years. He's desperate to avoid that outcome. So desperate that for the last few years he's being doing something that goes against his core: shooting barred owls.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BARRED OWL RECORDING)
SHOGREN: First, he plays a recording of a barred owl. Soon a real barred owl starts hooting.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BARRED OWL)
SHOGREN: Barred owls are aggressively territorial. If they hear an unknown bird, they'll try to intimidate it.
DILLER: Oop, one just buzzed us right there.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BARRED OWL)
DILLER: So there's the female right there. See her? She's looking right at us.
SHOGREN: A gorgeous owl perches on a branch nearby. Her light feathers glow in the moonlight.
DILLER: I think you can appreciate standing here how easy it would be - and when I say easy, technically easy or simple - to lethally remove that bird.
SHOGREN: More than 70 times, Diller has lifted a shot gun and killed a barred owl. Diller is a hunter, but he was taught never to kill a bird of prey or anything you didn't plan to eat. At first, someone else did the shooting but that felt hypocritical, so he started doing it himself. He remembers the first time.
DILLER: You know, I was so nervous about what I was doing and emotional, that I had to steady myself against a tree. And I hate it every time I go out and do it.
SHOGREN: The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service took seven years to wrestle with what do to about the invasion. Although it's illegal to shoot barred owls, the agency made an exception for Diller. It can't ignore the invasion because it's legally required to help rare species.
The agency even hired an ethicist, Clark University's Bill Lynn, to help wildlife experts resolve the dilemma.
BILL LYNN: People recognized there's a crisis for spotted owl that barred owls are part of the cause of the crisis. And so they reluctantly, essentially justified the experimental removal of barred owls.
SHOGREN: The Fish and Wildlife Service is starting a four-year experiment to kill up to 3600 barred owls in the Northwest. The advocacy group Friends of Animals is suing to stop the experiment. Its attorney Michael Harris says his group doesn't believe the government can make a moral argument for shooting an animal, even if it would benefit another animal.
MICHAEL HARRIS: To go in and say we're going to kill thousands and thousands of barred owls, literally forever, I don't see this as being a solution. At some point, you have to allow these species to either figure out a way to coexist or for nature to run its course.
DILLER: In this day and age that's an absurd thing to say.
SHOGREN: Diller says humans have altered nature so much already. He says people can and should fix the mess they've made. Where he's shot barred owls, spotted owls have come back. He says come on. I'll show you.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BARRED OWL RECORDING)
SHOGREN: We're on the bank of the Mad River and Diller plays a recording of a spotted owl hooting. He hears a distant response. from a real bird.
DILLER: Let's go up there.
SHOGREN: After a half-hour scramble through a forest dense with brush, we find a two spotted owls up high in the trees. Diller takes out a live white mouse and puts it on a branch.
(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING)
DILLER: I do that squeaking to make a sound like a small mammal.
SHOGREN: One of the owls swoops down, grabs the mouse, carries it away.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
INTERVIEWER: Diller sees a red band with white polka dots on one of the birds. It tells him this is a spotted owl that returned after he shot barred owls nearby. For him, that's success.
DILLER: Probably what makes spotted owls so special is the fact that, as you just witnessed, they fly right up to you. You get to interact with them. It's almost impossible as a biologist not to fall in love with these birds.
SHOGREN: Diller hopes the public will see the value in saving this beautiful creature, even if it means shooting another one. The federal government says if spotted owls come back after barred owls are removed, it may decide to kill barred owls over a broader area.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.