Ethical debate: saving owls by killing owls?

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This month’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment has a brief article about a new proposed conservation strategy that seems perfect for a Southern Fried Science ethical debate.  Northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) are one of the most famous endangered species in the United States. While solutions to the destruction of their habitat by logging have been debated for years, a new threat has been recently identified- encroachment on their limited habitat by another species of owl (the barred owl, Strix varia).  Some conservationists now believe that we need to kill barred owls to protect spotted owls.

Bob Sallinger, the Conservation Director of Portland’s Audubon Society, explains why this is such a tricky issue:

“Shooting hundreds, perhaps thousands of barred owls, in perpetuity, is a horrible thing to contemplate – but the [possible] extinction of the spotted owl is also profoundly difficult to accept”, he said.

Barred owls are not endangered. It is likely that without habitat restoration and removal of barred owls, the Northern spotted owl will go extinct.

According to the article, the US Fish and Wildlife Service expects to make a decision on whether or not to attempt small-scale barred owl removal experiments within a few months. They have also hired an ethicist to help sort out this problem.

Do you think it is acceptable to kill large numbers of a non-endangered species in order to prevent the extinction of an endangered similar species?

Do you think it is acceptable to allow an endangered species to go extinct by choosing to not kill a similar non-endangered species?

Do you think it should be within the authority of endangered species management bodies to kill animals that threaten those endangered species, or does killing animals go against the point of conservation?

Is this a dangerous precedent or an innovative new conservation idea?

The article does note that without a workable plan for restoring the old-growth forest habitat, even removing all the barred owls from the spotted owl habitat won’t help. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that there is a plan in place to restore old-growth forest habitat for the spotted owls, and only focus on the killing of barred owls.


February 18, 2010 • 11:04 am