Sunday’s edition of the local paper carried a Page 1 story on the continuing plight of that Northwest environmentalist poster child, the spotted owl. Now 20 years on the Endangered Species list, far from showing signs of recovery the bird’s population has been steadily declining despite commanding a massive investment of resources and wiping out entire economies. Now that the human influence has been removed from the habitat, natural selection is doing in the raptor in the form of the barred owl. This owl, more commonly known in the eastern U.S. as the hoot owl after it’s distinctive call, has been spreading westward for the last century and started encroaching on the spotted owl’s range over the last 50 years.
It seems that the hoot owl is the superior bird. It fills the same ecological niche as the spotted owl while subsisting on a more varied diet and able to live in a greater range of habitat. It’s also more aggressive and enjoys a longer breeding season. The spotted owl is being driven out the habitat it’s adapted to and this manifestation of the natural world at work has environmentalists and conservationists in a quandary. Because so many people have invested so much in what has turned out to be a losing effort in saving the spotted owl, federal wildlife officials have proposed a program to shoot barred owls in an effort to carve out habitat for the spotted owl.
The killing of a non-endangered species in an effort to promulgate a failing endangered species is not the most bizarre thing going on this neck of the woods. Until recently state officials were killing one protected species (the California sea lion) to prevent it from eating another protected species (the Pacific salmon). Welcome to the Kafka school of environmental management.
There are people who go out every weekend to the local fields and forests to look for and remove non-native, or ‘invasive’, plant life. No matter that species of fauna and flora have been living and dying, expanding and contracting their ranges, and ultimately going extinct, since time began. Efforts to control or even greatly influence these natural cycles bring to mind the expression “pissing up a rope”. It is a tremendous resource expenditure to no purpose.
Ever since I was a child when I’d hear about a certain species that was only viable in a limited habitat my thinking was not that public resources should be invested but that there was a species that, for whatever reason, was no longer viable. No ecological niche goes unfilled. The same people who express concern over species extinction and decreases in biodiversity will usually claim in the next breath that we don’t know how many species there are. Well, if you don’t know the nature of the set, how can you claim that the loss of some number of members diminishes the total?
When most people who claim the environmentalist mantle talk about natural conservation, what they really mean is natural statism. There is a basic cognitive dissonance in trying to maintain a dynamic environment in a static state. It’s the same mindset that attempts to ignore economics and psychology when ordering social systems, and then wonders why their methods don’t work.
Concerning the latest efforts at bringing back the failing spotted owl, a Mr. Lowell Diller with timber company Green Diamond Resource Co. says “The worst thing would be to spend millions, kill a bunch of barred owls, and get no treatment effect.”
Given the ability of people to develop tunnel vision when emotionally wrapped up in a cause, I’d say that’s exactly what’s going to happen.