Failing to Save the Spotted Owl

James L. Huffman, former Dean of the Lewis & Clark Law School, examines the federal government’s flagging efforts to save the endangered spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

Despite a 90% cutback in harvesting on federal lands (which constitute 46% of Oregon and Washington combined), the population of spotted owls continues to decline, as do rural communities that once prospered across the Northwest. In some areas, spotted owls are vanishing at a rate of 9% per year, while on average the rate is 3%. . . .

The final Revised Recovery Plan, issued on June 30, calls for expanding protections for owls beyond the nearly six million acres currently set aside. Ironically, it also calls for the “removal”—i.e., shooting—of hundreds of barred owls, a larger and more adaptable rival of the spotted owl that competes for prey and nesting sites, and sometimes breeds with the spotted owl.

How much will it cost to implement this plan? The Fish and Wildlife Service says the species could be rejuvenated over the next 30 years at a cost of about $127 million. But that money will do little if anything to rejuvenate the depressed rural communities of the Northwest where still more timber land will be off limits to harvesting.

The key point is that the species could be rejuvenated, but that does not mean it will be. The owl’s continued decline has confounded many experts and there’s really bery little reason to think the new plans will outperform the old.

This is a pattern we see all too often with the Endangered Species Act — regulatory measures are imposed with uncertain if any ecological benefit. The ESA has sometimes kept species from falling over the brink of extinction, but has done precious little to achieve its stated goal of species recovery. Residents of depressed timber communities may want ESA reform because of the Act’s tremendous costs, but there’s also ample reason to want ESA reform because of its environmental ineffectiveness.

For some of my ideas about ESA reform, see here.