Who's fooling whooo?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has compounded a bad decision in its spotted owl protection efforts by creating a bureaucratic fog to mask its intentions.

The decision to "control" barred owls to help the spotted owl is at best unsustainable and at worst messing with the very nature of protecting the natural order of things. Adding to the bad decision is the Fish and Wildlife Services' studious avoidance of the word "kill" in their conversations about controlling the spotted owl's competitor.

Efforts to protect the spotted owl, which in 1990 was listed as a "threatened' species under the Endangered Species Act, have limited logging and other activities on broad swaths of public forest lands. But they have not resulted in stabilizing the numbers of the birds, which are declining at about 3 percent per year. There are an estimated 1,120 spotted owl nesting sites in the federal forests surrounding the Rogue Valley.

The barred owl is larger and more aggressive than the spotted owl, and adapts more easily to a changing environment. That means it has thrived as it has moved west across the United States. That move, however, is not a sudden, recent event. Barred owls have been in Oregon for nearly four decades, but in recent decades their population has grown rapidly — some say "exploded" — while the spotted owl continues to decline.

Because the barred owl is aggressive and quick to defend its newly adopted territory, the more timid spotted owl is quickly cowed into moving on. There have even been a few documented cases of barred owls killing spotted owls.

Fish and Wildlife biologists in the field and, more likely, their superiors in tall office buildings — pigeon, not owl, territory — have grown frustrated at their inability to improve the spotted owls' survivability. So their latest plan includes stepped-up efforts to "control" the barred owl.

First of all, we're not children and everyone knows that "control" is code for "kill." Hey, Fish and Wildlife guys, news flash, we've broken your code. Plain English would be appreciated — then again, anyone who has read through a draft environmental impact statement knows that English is not your native tongue.

So, with the code broken, we can address the Fish and Wildlife decision to kill barred owls. In one word, it's unsustainable. OK, one other word, unnatural.

If the barred owl population is in fact "exploding," how many owls will biologists have to kill in order to make a difference? Hundreds? Thousands? And for how long will they have to kill those hundreds or thousands? Forever?

Forty years after we had no barred owls, we now have an exploding population, which suggests that the owls not only are adaptable, but also quite good at reproducing. Killing a few hundred birds may postpone the inevitable, but it would take a barred owl genocide to rid the region of them.

In addition to the question of how, there's the question of why. Why are we killing a dominant species to protect a weaker species? Are we protecting nature or our view of what nature should be?

Fish and Wildlife Service employees are certainly not united in the decision to kill barred owls. In fact the agency hired an "environmental ethicist" to help guide its discussions, some of which likely addressed many of the same issues raised here.

We suggest the ethicist also might want to instruct the Fish and Wildlife officials on the ethics of telling the truth about their plans for killing the barred owl. From where we sit, they should be as concerned about protecting the owls as they are about protecting their own rear ends.

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