Texans concerned about the economic implications of federal protection for the Dunes Sagebrush lizard in the Permian Basin will not find comfort in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, “Environmentalist Wisdom: Shoot One Owl to Save The Other,” which discusses the apparently futile efforts to save the northern spotted owl and the crushing economic losses which have resulted.

The northern spotted owl has been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1990. As a result, millions of acres of federal forest are off-limits to logging, a vital industry in the Pacific Northwest:

In the 1980s, before the owl was listed as threatened, nearly 200 sawmills dotted the state of Oregon, churning out eight billion board feet of federal timber a year. Today fewer than 80 mills process only 600 million board feet of federal timber. In Douglas County, for example, several mills dependent on federal timber have closed. Real unemployment in many Oregon counties exceeds 20%, double the national average.

Unfortunately, these drastic measures have not changed the spotted owl’s fate:

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 that rate is 3%.

Protection efforts resulted in millions of acres of unmanaged federal forests, contributing to deadly and costly forest fires. In 2002, the Biscuit Fire in Oregon and California burned nearly 500,000 acres and destroyed nearly $5 billion worth of timber. Unfortunately for the spotted owl, the very effort to save them also devastated them as an estimated 75 pairs of spotted owls died in the fire.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently unveiled its newest plan to save the spotted owl, at a cost of $127 million. The final Revised Recovery Plan sets aside even more acreage for habitat. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service will remove what it has deemed a “significant and complex threat”-the barred owl. In a Darwinian twist, competition for prey and nesting sites with a larger owl poses one of the biggest hurdles for the spotted owl. But rather than let Mother Nature determine the spotted owl’s fate, the Fish and Wildlife Service will systematically kill barred owls.

Wildlife preservation is a worthwhile goal, but it should not come at the expense of jobs for American families when we possess only limited power to understand or affect the origin and destiny of species.

– Laura Collins