Deep in southwest Oregon, where the Coast Range melts into the Siskiyou Mountains, Jim, an out-of-work choker setter, and Scott, a former sawmill green end supervisor, ride in the back of a muddy pickup driven by former yarder operator Dave, rolling through the Rogue River National Forest a couple of hours before sunset.
Jim and Scott both hold shotguns with full choke barrels—the better to reach their targets high up in the forest canopy.They roll to a stop, and Dave breaks out a boom box playing an electronic owl call, and within 15 minutes two dark feathery forms flit through the treetops and settle onto a limb high above the truck.
“Right there, right there,” Jim says to Scott. At $50 for every barred owl carcass they bring in this would be a profitable stop.
“You ready?” Jim says, getting impatient while Scott strains to get a steady bead on one of the birds.
“Are you guys gonna get the job done or what?” Dave snaps as he steps out of the truck and looks up. “There they are, right there! Go ahead—shoot!” Then, just as suddenly: “Wait, don’t shoot!”
Seconds later, after the three hunters watch the two owls—and their hundred bucks—disappear over a ridge, the shooters give Dave a disgusted look. “Sorry, guys,” he says. “I thought I saw spots.”
Twenty years after halting the harvest of most older age-class timber, putting hundreds of sawmills and other plants out of business and tossing tens of thousands of mill workers into the unemployment line—all in order to save the spotted owl—the government has decided maybe the best way to protect it is to shoot its cousin the barred owl, which is much more adaptable than the spotted owl and has apparently been chasing the spotted owl out of its old-growth habitats since the 1970s.
You see, several years after forcing such a regional economic crisis, FWS researchers expecting to find more spotted owls kept finding fewer and fewer—and lots more barred owls. All that stuff about halting old-growth forest management that led to massive regional economic dislocation and shattered thousands of lives and livelihoods? Never mind.
Now, the FWS is floating a proposal for an experimental program to shoot barred owls that have taken up residence in spotted owl habitat, then see if the spotted owls come back. Imagine trying to inspect every spotted owl nest site in three states for barred owls. And even if the government drafted an army of barred owl shooters, what’s to keep more barred owls from migrating across the Great Plains up into Canada and down the West Coast like they’ve done the past hundred years or so? (And we won’t even go into the potential horror of an overzealous barred owl blaster shooting the wrong bird. Everyone knows one dead spotted owl is worth at least three sawmills.) So it’s a brave new world out there in Northwest owl country. Remember, don’t shoot until you don’t see the spots on their feathers. Happy hunting.