A Shot in the Dark
In hopes of saving one owl species, scientists are killing another.
David Wiens raised the 12-gauge shotgun and took a few long, slow breaths to steady himself. It was his first time doing the worst part of a new job. He would have liked to have found any reason to delay, to not take the shot, but there was none: The large owl was perched right where she needed to be, just 20 yards away, unobstructed on a low branch and clearly visible in the beam of the high-powered flashlight mounted on his shotgun.
She had the dramatic light-and-dark markings and elegantly rimmed face he was looking for. The distinctive, upslanting hoot — “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” — confirmed her as a barred owl, an invader to this dark, wet forest in Oregon’s coastal mountains and the subject of this most unusual experiment. There were, much as he wanted one, no excuses.
“The little red dot,” Wiens says, “was right where I needed it to be.”
He pulled the trigger, but nothing happened: The safety was on. Wiens had practiced for this moment for hours upon hours in classes and shooting ranges, but he was still a firearm neophyte, the son of an ornithologist, a conservation biologist who’d studied owls and goshawks and golden eagles and never once killed any animal on purpose. After the failed shot, he needed another five minutes before he could force himself to pull the trigger again. He readied himself for the sharp crack of the shotgun — “When you’re out in the forest, it just echoes on forever.”
This time, the owl fell.
North Deadwood Creek, the site where Wiens shot his first barred owl last October, is an iconic old-growth forest of fir, hemlock, and cedar, thick with sword ferns and salal, moss and mist. For years it had been the home territory of a pair of spotted owls, the species that, during the famous fights between conservationists and loggers in the 1980s and 1990s, became the symbol of both the forests and their destruction. The North Deadwood pair was supposed to be among the lucky ones, beneficiaries of the plan that finally emerged to reduce logging by billions of board feet and save enough habitat for spotted owls to avoid extinction. It was a victory not just for the owls but for the founding notion of conservation biology: that humans could intervene in an ecosystem we’d messed up and set things back to rights. Robin Bown, a biologist who oversees the Barred Owl Removal Experiment, remembered that brief period of hope: “We had started to turn a corner. It started to look like we might succeed, and then … ” She finished her thought not with words but with a sigh of exasperation.
Though the first barred owls, which are native to the eastern United States, had already begun to arrive in Oregon while the logging debate raged, few people thought much about them. They were small in number and lived mostly on the margins of spotted owl territories, occasionally mating with them and producing hybrids (which scientists called sparred owls). The two species diverged 7 or 8 million years ago, evolving separately on either side of the impassable — for forest birds — Great Plains. Over the previous century, that barrier had been breached, likely due to the suppression of fires and the planting of woodlots and orchards and shelterbelts and urban trees by waves of humans with no idea that they were facilitating any westward expansion but their own.
The barred owl’s diet is less restrictive than that of the spotted, and its reproduction is much faster. The slow trickle of new arrivals quickly became a winged invasion. Scientists watched as gangs of the more aggressive and suddenly more numerous barred owls began to attack spotteds and drive them from their remaining hunting grounds. In 2002, a pair of barred owls moved into the center of the North Deadwood territory. No spotted owl has nested there since.
Wiens started tracking Oregon owls in 2006. Within two years, more than two-thirds of the spotted pairs that had long dwelled in his study site had disappeared. One day, he took a group of scientists to visit one of the last pairs left. The owls, pushed from their original territory, had relocated to a tiny island of old-growth trees surrounded by a former clear cut, too small and damaged a forest to provide the prey they needed. Wiens and the group followed the pair to their new nest. They had stopped reproducing.
The scientists were part of a working group charged with figuring out what to do about the fact that, more than a decade after all the hubbub and hope and federal action, spotted owl populations were declining faster than ever. The current experiment — which calls for the removal of some 1,900 barred owls from sites in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California — is the team’s test solution, making the 12-gauge, in Wiens’s words, “basically our research tool.” Nonlethal removal was considered but deemed too difficult. To reduce suffering, killing isn’t allowed during nesting season when owls might have young that would starve without them.
William Lynn, an ethicist hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help the group navigate the list of unpleasant options, calls the shooting “a sad good.” The phrase sounds poetic but is actually a theoretical term created to acknowledge the genuine loss and suffering of individual deaths alongside the larger purpose they can serve. Lynn talked scientists and activists through different ethical frameworks — from biocentrism, which focuses on the value of individual lives, to ecocentrism, which sees animals as cogs necessary to the functioning of the largest good, the ecosystem. He believes that humans, because we put spotted owls in their current predicament (certainly through our logging and probably through our accidental meddling), have an ethical responsibility to them and that the survival of their species trumps the survival of individual barred owls.
But there’s a trickier question: What if the experiment succeeds? Would we really want it to keep going? Two thousand owls is one thing, but any large-scale management strategy based on saving spotted owls by continually killing barred owls (complete removal is considered impossible) might eventually require tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths. At that point, Lynn believes, the ethical calculation would tip the other way: All those deaths would overwhelm the good they were trying to create. (Wiens, for his part, isn’t so sure. He wonders about all the other species affected by such a fundamentally altered ecosystem.)
Land managers aren’t talking much about that future yet; they say they’re waiting for fuller results to analyze. Still, evidence from removal programs in California and British Columbia has shown that some spotted owls presumed to be dead were simply silent, hiding out on the edges of their old territories and hoping to one day move back in to mate and nest again. After the barred invaders were killed, they did — sometimes after seven years of waiting.
Wiens, who is gangly with a gentle voice, never imagined himself “actually shooting a big, beautiful raptor species.” He took the job in part so he could reduce the birds’ suffering; he tells his team to let an owl get away rather than take an imperfect shot, and he insists that the shooters carry bolt-action devices in their pockets to deliver swift death if the shot doesn’t. He finds everything about killing an owl upsetting. “I don’t like dealing with the dead bodies. I don’t like the shooting. I don’t like any part of it,” he says. As the project leader, Wiens could have left all of the shooting up to the more experienced team that he hired. But he felt it was wrong somehow, even unethical, to chase the uncertain good without experiencing the certain sad.
There’s also something about that shotgun, about how it turns Wiens and his team into apex predators with active control over the balance of lives. It helps him to think that way. “We don’t like it because it involves killing,” Wiens says. “But that’s how nature operates. It’s through predation.”