By GREG WALCHER
When is natural evolution acceptable? Should we generally let nature take its course, or stage an intervention? Apparently, one’s answer depends on one’s political agenda.
When Northern gray wolves migrate into Rocky Mountain wolves’ turf, that’s OK, nature taking its course. In fact, taxpayers have spent millions aiding that “introduction.” But when channel catfish migrate into the razorback sucker’s habitat, they must be removed! There are scores of examples of such opposite strategies. That’s because sometimes wildlife officials think evolution is good, sometimes not. It depends on which approach best advances the preferred policy.
For example, if endangered fish are an important tool for controlling Colorado River water, the purity of the native species must be maintained at all cost, including removal of non-natives. But if a non-native “introduced” species like wolves or lynx can be used to stop grazing, logging, mining, or other public lands uses, then the “non-native” part becomes a minor technicality.
This inconsistency is called “Miles’s law,” named after a bureaucrat who originated the concept 70 years ago. It means leaders pursue whatever policies most benefit their own organizations. As Rufus Miles put it, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Sen. Everett Dirksen used it to describe the partisan aisle that divides Congress. “Where a man stands on any issue,” he said, “depends on where he sits.”
The spotted owl controversy is a textbook example. In the 1990s the northern spotted owl was the political hammer that destroyed most of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. With no active management, these overgrown forests are now being destroyed, not by loggers, but by catastrophic wildfires – nine million acres across the West this year, mostly on national forests and national parks.
The 1990s theory was that spotted owls only live in “old growth” forests, which were being ravaged by loggers for obscene profits, killing off the spotted owls. The federal endangered species protection stopped nearly 95 percent of all logging on national forests in California, bankrupting hundreds of sawmills. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost throughout the northwest, and dozens of timber-dependent communities devastated, many of which have never recovered.
Some think such “collateral damage” was an acceptable price for saving the spotted owl. Except much of the spotted owl theory turned out to be wrong. We now know spotted owls also thrive in younger forests, where there are plenty of squirrels, an owl’s favorite meal. Spotted owls are not dependent only on vast swaths of “protected” forestland — which is now overgrown, dying, and burning. In fact, despite the absence of logging for three decades, northern spotted owls have not recovered as planned, because their primary threat is not logging, but another species of owl.
Barred owls, commonly known as hoot owls, inhabit the entire east coast, and northern Canada. By the 1970s they had also expanded south to San Francisco. Barred owls are more aggressive, competing for habitat and food. They occasionally kill a spotted owl, but that isn’t the worst of it. Apparently, the two species quite fancy each other and often “hybridize,” as biologists euphemistically call it.
Scientists began noticing hybridization between the owl species in 1989, and by 2009 a Smithsonian article called it “The Spotted Owl’s New Nemesis.” It is the same reason bonytail chubs are mostly extinct in the Colorado River — evolution. They cross-bred with other chubs and “hybridized” themselves nearly out of the picture, before the government decided to save them.
My friend Joe Reddan, a Durango forester, recently wrote about the owls, “In any other culture, the ability of barred owls to intermarry with spotted owls, northern spotted owls ,and Mexican spotted owls, would be considered progress and championed.” Instead, the government decided the migration of barred owls should be stopped — by shooting them.
After the obligatory environmental impact study, the government began paying people to kill nearly 4,000 owls, in order to save other owls. The 10-year “experiment” has now been extended, in what some pundits call “wildlife ethnic cleansing.”
Environmental activists were perplexed, one leader saying, “The idea of killing thousands and thousands of these beautiful birds is unacceptable to many, many people. At the same time, having a species like the spotted owl go extinct is also unacceptable.”
So what should wildlife managers do? Let nature take its course? Observe natural evolution? Not if you are on the side that used spotted owls as a tool to destroy the timber industry. In other words, where you stand depends on where you sit.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.