Owl Surveyor Weighs Intervention Against Evolution
by Heather Campbell (with photo of mama and baby by Anthony Two Feathers Colegrove)
It is wonderful to live in one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. The Klamath Mountains are home to a multitude of flora, fauna, and wildlife. MKWC is now operating within the confines of the Mid Klamath Restoration Partnership (a network of people working towards resiliency from rivers to ridges) to search for the species Strix Occidentalis Caurina, otherwise known as the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO). The NSO calls the Pacific Northwest home, where it is considered a keystone species and is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act as ‘threatened.’ Loss of habitat over the past century, and, more recently, the invasion of the Barred Owl (Strix varia) from the East have led to a sharp decline in the population of this splendid raptor.
No Holds Barred
We are nearing the end of the yearly breeding season for the Spotted Owl and are mid season for survey efforts. To date, in the search area, MKWC has come across one Spotted Owl. While the outlook for the NSO appears bleak, the future of the Barred Owl seems very bright in comparison - at last count, Barred Owls numbered six. (If you're curious, here is what a Northern Spotted Owl call sounds like. NSOmale4note2.mp3)
Barred owls have the evolutionary advantage over the Spotted. They are larger, more easily adaptable to inferior habitat and are more aggressive. As such, they are able to out-compete the Spotted and are pushing them out of what little prime habitat still exists. In an effort to reverse this trend, the USFWS is experimenting in small designated areas with the use of force to remove Barred owls. This method is still in the testing phase and its success, or not, is yet to be determined. I have spoken with a colleague in the Wildlife field who helps manage one of the areas selected for testing, and have been told that they’ve had good results; that is, after removal of the Barred Owls, some areas were reinhabited by Northern Spotted Owls.
Recovery At What Cost?
This is great news for the NSO; however, I am a bit ambivalent. While I agree with protecting the NSO from extinction and regret that we as humans played a major role in the decline of the species, I also understand evolution and survival of the fittest, though it is hard to say with certainty if it is in fact evolution at work here. One could argue that the Barred owl might not have flourished here had it not been for human encroachment and habitat modification. On the other hand, evolution has been a catalyst of change since the beginning of time. If it is in fact destined that the stronger of the species prevail, maybe further interference with nature isn’t the best course of action. At the end of the day it is harming one species to save another.
Heather Campbell is MKWC's invaluable Administrative/Grants Coordinator, and she also serves as our Wildlife Director in her spare time. Among other things, this means she orchestrates and participates in owl surveys, spearheads research about how to create more habitat for endangered monarch butterflies in disturbed areas on our landscape, and helps to educate the public about Pacific fishers and efforts to recover them in our area.