The Current

Why thousands of barred owls are being shot by U.S. conservationists

Is it fair to kill one species to save another? Conservationists disagree, but it's a question that will become more pertinent as climate change forces animals to migrate.

Is it fair to kill one species to save another?

Barred owls are being culled in the Pacific Northwest to save the critically endangered spotted owl. (Toby Talbot, File/AP)
Listen23:21

Humans shouldn't be interfering with nature by killing one species to save another, according to a lawyer who is working to oppose a cull of barred owls.

The owls are being shot by conservationists in the Pacific Northwest in an effort to save their feathered cousin, the critically endangered spotted owl.

"We shouldn't be choosing sides," said Michael Harris, the director of the wildlife law program at Friends of Animals. His group opposes the cull and is preparing a second lawsuit to try to stop it.

"We really believe that they need to be given that opportunity to see if they can coexist in their new environment," he told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"We just don't know what the ultimate outcome would be if these two species were given a chance to figure it out."

Barred owls are relatively new to the west coast, having spread across the continent via the towns and cities that have grown in the last century. They're bigger and more aggressive than the spotted owl, and have been pushing them out of their nesting grounds, which is what has prompted conservationists to cull their numbers.

The spotted owl, seen here in California's Tahoe National Forest, is one of the most endangered birds in Canada. (Debra Reid/AP)

About halfway through a six-year experimental cull, roughly 2,000 of the birds have been shot in Oregon, Washington and California.

Harris argued that the barred owl is just doing what it's supposed to do: finding ways to survive and prosper.

By intervening, he told Chattopadhyay, we're not giving the barred owl "a fair shake."

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      Bernard Forsythe has been looking after homes belonging to barred owls high in the trees for the past 40 years. 2:31

      Not 'natural evolution'

      Animal ethicist William Lynn said by destroying the owls' habitats, humans contributed to the problem in the first place. 

      "This is not natural evolution," he told Chattopadhyay.

      "This is entirely the product of human actions. It's a human-caused extinction in the making."

      Lynn was hired by the U.S. government to examine the ethics of killing the birds. While "we can't kill our way back to biodiversity," he ultimately came to support the cull. Government conservationists have explored non-lethal ways to manage barred owl numbers, but they just don't work, he said.

      Barred owls are doing great across North America. Spotted owls are critically endangered.-  William Lynn, animal ethicist

      He argued that when you weigh the value of a barred owl's life against the chance that the endangered spotted owl species will become extinct, the barred owl loses.

      "Barred owls are doing great across North America. Spotted owls are critically endangered," he said.

      The culling is an experiment, he added, and is not expected to continue indefinitely.

      "This experiment is to remove some barred owls to see whether spotted owls can form a refugia, a sort of a defensible territory in which they can live and flourish in the wild.

      "If they can't — and this experiment ends — that doesn't mean that killing barred owls is going to go on."

      Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.


      Written by Mary-Catherine McIntosh. This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath and Halifax Network Producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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