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On Species Extinction, Barred Owl Removal and Saying Hard Things

EPIC supports barred owl removal because it is necessary to stop the extinction of the northern spotted owl. We have been accused of being euphemistic, so I will be more blunt: EPIC supports killing barred owls because they are invading the West Coast, and through their invasion, are causing mass disruption of West Coast forest ecosystems — best illustrated by the impending extinction of the northern spotted owl. The good news is that large-scale experiments show that barred owl removal works; where it has been employed, spotted owl decline has reversed (and where it hasn’t, decline has continued or steepened.) 

Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s barred owl removal strategy has made the news, and we have increasingly found ourselves in an unsavory but important position as spokespeople for barred owl removal.

Why? Because it is important to build social acceptance for something that is difficult, but ultimately necessary. Without barred owl removal, the northern spotted owl goes extinct, and as an organization that has fought since 1977 to keep it around, that’s unacceptable to us. Extinction is forever, with entire species and ways of life permanently extinguished from our entire planet, and ecological relationships irreversibly severed and altered. Barred owl removal is similar to other wildlife conservation programs where invasive species are removed to benefit native species, like removing brown-headed cowbirds to save the Kirtland’s warbler. Biodiversity is precious to life on Earth, and the peril of spotted owls is only one part of our planet’s greater 6th mass extinction that we are currently experiencing as a result of human activities.

Supporting barred owl removal in the interest of northern spotted owl survival is a position that we don’t take lightly, and is based on years of research and conversations with experts in spotted owl research. You can listen to some of my conversations with experts on our podcast, the EcoNews Report, where we have published two episodes (7/31/2021 and 12/16/2023) on this subject.

In all honesty, it would be easier to sit this one out and let others take the lead. That’s what many of our sister organizations are doing, and I get it; why suffer the slings and arrows and risk turning off members? Or worse, EPIC could play to the biases of the public and oppose barred owl removal. It would be easy to gin up something popular and vaguely science-sounding, and consequently oppose it — feckless politicians are doing so.

As the executive director of EPIC, I want this organization to say the hard things. I want to use our organizational reputation to speak to people whose base instinct is right (let’s not kill wildlife!), and explain this particular situation and why it is an exception to that ordinary rule. I know we can do this because I have faith in EPIC members. Y’all are smart and capable of nuance, and even if we disagree here, I appreciate that we can have adult conversations. 


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