Natalie Jacewicz, SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
The barred owl has speckled brown wings, teddy bear eyes and a hoot that sounds like a puppy mouthing a sock. This one also has a red laser dot on its head. After getting a good look, Lowell Diller fires his rifle. The owl tumbles off its perch to the ground.
Diller has pulled the trigger on barred owls more than 100 times in the forests of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, but he’s no poacher or renegade woodsman. He’s a wildlife biologist who, as part of an experiment sanctioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, kills one bird to protect another. The northern spotted owl, a smaller Pacific Northwest native that became symbolic of the region’s timber conservation battles, is threatened with extinction.
Diller, a biologist and contractor for Green Diamond Resource Co., a lumber company managing timberland in Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties, agrees the barred owl is “an amazing bird, a wonderful bird.”
But it has invaded California from the eastern United States, muscling out northern spotted owls upstate, and spreading south toward San Francisco. If the barred owls continue their advance, they may swoop in on other birds as well, such as the California spotted owl in the Sierra National Forest and Monterey.
A study soon to be published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and Wildlife Monographs shows the results of Diller’s grisly conservation experiment: It works.
Without barred owls competing for habitat, northern spotted owls bounce back. And conservationists now are staring down the barrel of a big question: How far should humans go to take sides in owl wars?