Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Spotted Owls: Time to Amend the Endangered Species Act?

The Oregonian [“Shotgun conservation,” July 6, 2011] opines that “there’s no choice but to keep trying to save the spotted owl.” It notes that “The Endangered Species Act, thankfully, doesn’t allow Americans to get frustrated and walk away from trying to preserve a species.”

There is, however, no law prohibiting modification or repeal of legislation which turns out to have been unwise.

As the Oregonian itself notes, we have destroyed a major segment of the Oregon economy to save the owls, but they keep on disappearing. So now we’ll kill the barred owls (illegal immigrants who are displacing their spotted brethren), just as we are shooting salmon-eating sea lions in the Columbia.

Before spending scarce taxpayer dollars to shoot barred owls, officials should visit the Paleontology Center at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and consider its implications. It displays many animals that once lived in Oregon and now are extinct.

The climate and other characteristics of our planet are constantly changing. New species better suited to new conditions are evolving and old ones that can’t adapt are disappearing. We should not exaggerate our ability to stop nature from doing its thing.

Nor should we try to do so without taking the side effects and costs into account. No doubt survival of the spotted owl would be a good thing. But there are many other good things that these same tax dollars could be used for.

The most interesting argument in the “Shotgun conservation” editorial was in the next to last paragraph” “It is too soon to give up on the spotted owl. The Northwest has already sacrificed so much—thousands of jobs, entire rural communities---to create a survivable space in old growth forests for this species.” This sounds suspiciously like arguments that the U.S. should not pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan because it would render meaningless the thousands of American deaths incurred in these wars, no matter how badly the wars are going or the prospects for any kind of satisfactory outcome.

So perhaps we need to think again about the Endangered Species Act and at least amend it so we can give up on protecting species whose prospects are not good when the costs of doing so are excessive. A state whose people could tolerate policies destroying most jobs in logging should be able to handle disappearance of the spotted owls, if it comes to that.

Spotted owls or no spotted owls, there are excellent reasons why we might want to protect old growth forests. But regulations aimed directly at this goal could make more sense and be more efficient than the present approach.