Monday, 28 January 2013

Conservation and Owls: An Unexpected Philosophy?

In British Columbia it’s a case of priorities. The Globe and Mail reports of the Northern Spotted Owl: dwindling to ten or so individuals in the old growth conifers of Pacific Canada. The causes are two-fold: trees and Barred Owls. Logging takes out swathes of old mature trees, a habitat that by nature doesn’t grow back overnight. That was a war waged in the 1980s though – and won – but now it faces a feathered foe. The Barred Owl is a native of the same woods but a more successful species that, through competition, is slowly pushing the rarer Spotted Owl out. So now the Canadian government wants to shoot the Barred Owls to save its Spotted Owls.

I can’t comment on the specifics of the case other than to note that the Barred Owl > Spotted Owl dynamic is not without its sceptics. What it does do, for me at least, is raise a number of questions about conservation and its purpose and priorities. This is an issue not short of a thought thistle or two.
Northern Spotted Owl © Wikimedia Commons
If it were a non-native species impacting on a native, than that would, for me, be an easier issue to deal with. When hybridisation with feral Ruddy Ducks threatened the sole European population of the White-headed Duck, the case is clear. Man made the mistake of taking a species to where it shouldn’t be, and other species mustn’t pay the price for it. The evidence is rarely 100% conclusive, but where there is the risk then action needs to be taken. Man has the blood of enough species on its hands and we don’t need to add yet another one to it.

But in the thick of coniferous Canada, the Barred Owl is native and has a history as old as the woods are deep. However, its population is expanding as the Spotted Owl’s dwindles, and is moving west into the Spotted Owl territory. This is apparently a natural increase (as much as something can be in a world so removed from the natural by human influence) unlike British populations of Crows, booming due to our unnatural wastefulness. It is tempting to take a Darwinian, survival of the fittest approach to this problem: the Barred Owl is simply more adaptable, out competing the Spotted Owl, so cut the sentiment and let nature take its course. But to do so is to consign one species’s fate to nature in an unnatural world, so why should we? What we lose with the loss of the Spotted Owl is a talismanic species that united environmentalists in the 1980s against unsustainable logging, as well as a species that has its own place in biology, cultures and myths. The preventable loss of one species is tragic: for conservationists this Darwinian approach can’t stand. What then would be the point and purpose of a conservationist?
Barred Owl © Wikimedia Commons

To shoot a Barred Owl is an action that requires no sentiment either. Nothing is fitter and more unnatural than a bullet from a gun. Nature has no respect for political borders: that the Spotted Owl has only ten individuals left in Canada is to ignore the thousands more to its south. The ‘northern’ subspecies extends from North California to British Columbia. Shooting Barred Owls may create a vacuum for more Spotted Owls from North America to fill. The result, some owls cross an arbitrary border because other owls died. ‘Nations’ as Larkin wrote, are ‘vague as weeds’. Why should an owl one side of a manmade line live and the other one die? What’s to stop the Barred Owl filling the Barred Owl vacuum?
You trace through the arguments, those pro-life for Barred and pro-life for Spotted Owls and end up with an interesting mix of not particularly not particularly satisfying conclusions. Conservation is a science steeped in arguments, interpretations and tough decisions with far-reaching consequences. I’m glad it’s not for me to decide.

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