The Spotted Owl Canard and Environmentalists
By Daryl L. Hunter (6/2006)
Written for my weekly column in the Jackson Hole Weekly

A funny thing happened here in our Northwestern forest; a giant canard has been shot out of the sky. One of the most fought over endangered species in the history of the West, the Spotted Owl, contrary to popular belief appears to be the victim of an invasive species from the eastern forest; the culprit, the Barred Owl. The Spotted Owl is losing territory because the larger, tougher, Barred Owl, desires it also. Barred Owls are a more adaptable species, being more flexible, they spread out effectively, and occupy diverse habitats. Sometimes they interbreed with Spotted Owls creating Spotted-Barred Owl hybrids.

Is the Barred Owl invasion natural? Kent Livezey, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said: “The Barred Owl's migration was likely caused by people but not necessarily from fragmentation of forests from logging or development, rather, an increase in tree cover in the center of North America helped along by fire suppression and tree planting prompted the owl's move west. But, they made it here under their own steam.” Native Americans also stopped burning the Great Plains in the 1880’s: an increase of tree density is the result. This accelerated the tree bridge from the eastern forests into the Spotted Owl territory of the Northwest.

Elk in burnt forest.
Elk in burnt forest.

This paradoxical development begs the question: what is to be done about the Barred Owl invasion? Clearly a thorny philosophical issue; what should be done about an invasive species that's threatening the fine-feathered icon of environmental movement, their powerful logging stopping canard? Is the natural environment to be defined as pre-Columbian or prehuman? This question behind the Barred Owls' westward expansion is critical. From a public relations standpoint, managing the Barred Owl to decrease impact on Spotted Owls is problematic. Worse yet is the ethical dilemma of exonerating the logging industry; an imponderable sacrilege for the environmental community.

Anti logging hysteria in the name of the Spotted Owl during the 1980s and 1990s resulted in the cessation of logging on approximately 22 million acres of national forest land. The closure resulted in the loss of 130,000 jobs and the closing of over 900 saw mills of the Northwestern forest.

Here on the Caribou-Targhee and Bridger Teton National Forests logging has all but disappeared. A valuable renewable resource, used by us all, is no longer harvested. A noble trade of the settlers of our region and their progeny has nearly disappeared, a victim of unethical junk science.

Firefighters risking their lives because of your collective recklessness.
Firefighters risking their lives because of your collective recklessness.

The US House of Representatives passed a new version of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on September 29, 2005. The updated version requires better science. Under the existing scheme, the government only has to use best available science, which often manifests itself as the best available science desired by the elite environmentalists.

The new Act, if passed by the Senate, would abolish the critical habitat set aside requirement. It would create a bigger role for effected local citizenry, state, and local governments. It would require best science be used, and all science to be peer reviewed to avoid the ethical transgressions of the past. A peer review by a team of outside experts will bring integrity to the process and remove the cloud from the ESA. Predictably the environmental community objects to any change in the law.

Logging was the scapegoat hastily blamed by environmentalists for the decline of Spotted Owl; clearly, logging may no longer be considered its demise. The loss of the 130,000 logging jobs and the closing of the 900 sawmills has devastated to the economies of logging communities. The size and ferocity of our wildfires of the past decade have been a direct result of the environmental community crying wolf about the Spotted Owl which brought to a screeching halt an industry that thinned our forests with very little financial help from our government.

The Sierra Club, and like-minded corporatephobes, in the aftermath of the massive fires of 2002 insists the way to thin our forest is to pay thinning contractors billions out of the U.S. treasury to remove vegetation with little market value. The moral and fiscally responsible course of action is to reverse the wrong that was perpetrated in the name of the Spotted Owl. We should fire up our logging mills in St. Anthony ID, Dubois WY, etc. We should re-deploy our tree fallers, haulers, and skidder operators into our woods; a smart, market based, solution to restore our forest’s productivity while restoring economic salvation for logging communities and reducing fire danger throughout the west.

Addendum 2021

I wrote this fifteen years ago and now we are paying the price. Oh, there have been many ringing the bell but few care to listen.

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