Disappearing owls, threatened forests, and the city-country conflict
"Ghost" is a word field biologists use to describe a species near the end of its time on earth.
Often these endangered species are birds, but in a spectacular essay in a newly internet-friendly issue of the English literary journal Granta, Robert MacFarlane slightly expands the meaning of the word.
He visits an obscure low-lying region of U.K., the Norfolk Fens, not far from the Wash, where numerous varieties of locals — including plants, animals, and types of people — are on the verge of being wiped out by modern agriculture, by climate change, and by indifference. He brings along a photographer, Justin Partyka, who has made capturing this land his life’s work. And along the way he describes the biological concept of ghost:
A ‘ghost’ is a species that has been out-evolved by its environment, such that, while it continues to exist, it has little prospect of avoiding extinction. Ghosts endure only in what conservation scientists call ‘non-viable populations’. They are the last of their lines.
It’s a spooky concept, but well-established — the journal Science uses the word, for example, to describe the now-famous Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
These sort of ghosts can jolt authorities into drastic action. In the Southeast, for example, the federal government says it is prepared to spend $27 million on a plan to bring back the large, charismatic woodpecker long thought to be extinct. As of 2005, one male was known to exist, although the bird has not been captured clearly on film in decades.
(Back in the l940s, this bird was rarely seen outside a Louisiana forest known as the Singer Tract. Despite vigorous protests, the Singer sewing machine company leased this tract to loggers who clear cut the forest, reports Jay Rosen in his fascinating book The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. Rosen, a New York City resident, became obsessed with seeing the iconic bird, and like many bird lovers spent hours and days in swampy Arkansas forests hoping to find it.)
Today in the Pacific Northwest, history is threatening to repeat this old story in a new way. Millions of acres of national forest were set aside as protected habitat to save the Spotted Owl under the Clinton administration, but, in a bitter irony, as the bird becomes increasingly rare, it becomes easier to argue that much of this forest is no longer owl habitat and shouldn’t be protected.
“There really isn’t any evidence to suggest that creating more habitat reserves will alter adult (owl) survivorship,” said Joan Jewett, [a Bush administration spokesperson for U.S. Fish and Wildlife].
She mentioned this in the context of a new Forest Service plan to sharply cut Spotted Owl forest habitat.
In one remarkably bland and Cheney-esque sentence, Jewett suggests that more habitat is being proposed for the endangered spotted owl. This misleads, to put it politely, because in fact the government wants to cut the existing protected habitat by 1.6 million acres.
More than one million acres in Oregon alone would be no longer be considered owl habitat, according to a first-rate story in The Seattle Times by environmental reporter Warren Cromwell.
This move towards logging has a demographic and political logic to it, and it’s much the same logic that led GOP candidate John McCain to choose the young governor of Alaska to be his running mate.
Yet another terrific essay in Granta, this one by Seattle writer Jonathan Raban, explains why:
The West is in the middle of a furious conflict between the city and the country, in part a class war, in part a generational one, which has significant political consequences. In the 2004 general election, every city in the United States with more than 500,000 inhabitants returned a majority vote for John Kerry. The election was won for Bush and the Republicans in the outer suburbs and the rural hinterlands. Much was made of ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’, but the great rift was between the blue cities and the red countryside. Environmental politics, in the form of fervent local quarrels over land use, were at the heart of this division. Beneath the talk of Iraq, health care, terrorism, gun control, abortion and all the rest lay a barely articulated but passionate dispute about the nature of nature in America.
An Oregon biologist clarified the details for me:
The ESA [Endangered Species Act] was an easy way to stop Federal logging, but at a great cost. It made all the rural voters hate endangered species, because besides losing their logging and mill jobs, their schools and county services are starving without federal timber receipt money; the Forest Service staffs are a fraction of what they were a decade ago, the logging simply shifted to private timber lands, and the situation is primed for Bush to sell off National Forest land.
To be fair, the government isn’t directly killing the owls; it’s just taking advantage of their problems.
The spotted owl, it turns out, is being targeted by an aggressive and invasive exotic species from the East, the barred owl. In one forest, Fish and Wildlife biologists even took to shotgunning the barred owl, to give the natives a chance.
In a preliminary test in Northern California, researchers shot seven barred owls near former spotted-owl nesting sites. Spotted owls returned to all the sites …
Lowell Diller, a biologist with Green Diamond Resource Co., which owns the forest where the shootings took place, thinks it’s a worthwhile experiment, even if it’s controversial …
“As a society we may choose not to control barred owls. But we ought to do it with the knowledge of what would it take and is it feasible,” he said.
It’s not the Bush administration’s fault that the barred owl is picking on the spotted owl. But few biologists believe that cutting spotted owl habitat will help. Even peer-reviewers within the Forest Service doubt the logic of the ruling:
Two reviewers questioned whether the reduction of more than 1.5 million acres was consistent with the best scientific understanding of the species’ conservation needs, and asked how we can justify dropping critical habitat from the current designation when the species is continuing to decline. One reviewer pointed to the work of Carroll and Johnson (in press), which indicates the current proposal will result in reduced habitat as well as reduced abundance of owls.
This admission can be found within the ruling released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in August, which was published in the Federal Register.
Still, although this large owl may be disappearing at the rate of 4 percent a year, it’s still with us now. In a video sidebar to The Seattle Times story, a biologist finds a nest, and introduces us to the owlets.
It’s a living reminder that the controversy over setting aside forest for the sake of the spotted owl hasn’t gone away, as much as some in Washington, D.C., might wish it would.
The time may have come for bird-lovers to visit these woods, while this charismatic bird is still around, and before it becomes little more than a ghost, like its distant relative the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.