Spiritual Ecology is not Always Natural Ecology

Spiritual Ecology is not Always Natural Ecology October 14, 2016
Barely discernible barred owls

One of my spiritual practices, is, some days after work, instead of taking the bus directly, to walk through Pacific Spirit Park to a bus stop farther from campus. It helps be get out of my head, grounds me in the changing seasons, and fills my lungs with clean cool air. I usually take a long trail that transects the section of gorgeous second growth douglas fir forest between University Blvd. and 16th Ave. This week, mushrooms are popping up like magic, out of logs, the mossy ground, and standing trunks of dead alders. The rotting shells of old growth trees still haunt the place, that despite its history, feels as primeval a place as I have encountered. It is a spiritual ecology for me, because it nurtures my connection to God, the present moment, and the life with which I depend on and share this planet with.

Recently, as I slowly walked along just before sunset on a grey Vancouver day, I stumbled on two barred owls perched on low branches. We made eye contact, but they didn’t seem to mind me all that much. After a few minutes of silence, a small springer spaniel trotted down the path from the other direction. Nose to the ground, he caught the scent of something, and bounded off the trail just below the owls, who stayed put, but followed the dog with their eyes. Then, a squirrel, flushed by the spaniel, ran up the trunk of a nearby douglas fir and stopped. The owls divided their glances between the energetic canine on the ground, and the potential meal now frozen to the side of the passive fir. In short order, the walker of the spaniel arrived, and I silently pointed to the owls. He stopped, and admired them with me, and we exchanged a few words about the encounter.

According to wildlife biologist Kent Livezey, prior to the 1870s the great plains served as a barrier to barred owls, an eastern native, from inhabiting the American and Canadian west. Native peoples’ burning practices, which kept the plains open and mostly free of trees, prevented the owl from expanding their range into the Pacific West. As European settlements expanded, and Native peoples died from disease, were slaughtered, or forced onto reserves, fire suppression rather than fire promotion, became the rule. Europeans also began planting more trees around homes, parks, and riparian areas, which increased canopy cover and acted as habitat corridors through which the barred owl could migrate. The barred owl soon rapidly expanded their range into Alberta and Montana, and eventually to the entire Pacific West. They did not arrive in British Columbia until the 1940s and in some parts of California until the late 1970s. The rapid changes in tree cover to the great plains also allowed other birds to expand their ranges, including the ubiquitous American crow and the western kingbird.

As the spaniel franticly ran circles around the base of the douglas fir, the owls decided to take advantage of the situation. One owl flew to a perch on the other side of the tree where the squirrel clung, while the other flushed the squirrel upward, by landing on a branch just below it. They alternated, driving the squirrel higher and higher, until I could no longer see the trio through the foliage. I assume it did not end well for the squirrel, and unable to fly, the dog lost interest and trotted after her walker. I too continued on my way, grateful for an encounter that does not happen every day.

You can't see them but there is a dog, a squirrel and two owls in this shot!
You can see the dog, but the squirrel and two owls are in there too somewhere

Once, when I was living in Oregon, a forest defense activist told me that they hated the barred owl because it was displacing the famed spotted owl, which so many had fought to protect. He made it seem like it was a sinister invasive species, unnatural even.

In the 1990s however, the story went that the spotted owl was being driven to extinction by voracious logging companies that were cutting at unsustainable levels and harvesting what remained of the regions precious old growth forests. These forests were prime habitat for the spotted owl, and the species became the poster child of forest conservation activists, who were tired of clearcuts and plantations.

As many will recall, the fight was quickly dualized into a battle between jobs and owls, and with the help of Al Gore, the owls eventually won. Viewed as a major victory for the environmental movement, the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan set aside some seven million acres of federal land as “late successional reserves (LSR)” areas that either contained, or would be managed to become old growth forest. The spotted owl prefers this type of habitat to nest and hunt in, and the idea was, if we protect old growth habitat, we will be protecting spotted owls.

Things didn’t quite work out this way. In a 2011 US Fish and Wildlife Spotted Owl Recovery Plan report, the authors lamented that despite their herculean effort to protect owl habitat, it was now clear that the barred owl, not logging companies, were the real threat to the owls existence. Barred owls outcompete, and in some cases prey on the spotted owl, and in habitats with both, the barred owls were showing to be more aggressive and thus more effective hunters than the spotted owls, thus outcompeting them and making it harder for them to reproduce in numbers that would remove their threatened species designation. In some cases, the two species were even breeding to create a hybrid owl called the ‘sparred’ owl.

The US Fish and Wildlife department is now implementing a multi-year study that involves removing (shooting) barred owls from critical spotted owl habitat. The pilot plans to shoot up to 4,500 owls at a cost of around $700 per owl, and is already well on its way to achieving this goal. In one year, the project has resulted in the death of 36 times more raptors than have ever been killed by a conservation project in the history of the US.

This raises some interesting ethical questions of course. Human beings are intervening to prevent a beautiful creature from going extinct. But is this scale of slaughter justified? Not to mention the financial resources being used? If protecting their habitat is not enough, will killing the spotted owl’s competitor work? Is the barred owl unnatural just because they are a recent arrival? As biologist David Cole writes, there is a difference between wild and natural, and we cannot have them both. Either, we intervene to preserve what we think is the natural state of the forest, or we allow it be wild, with all the dynamic changes and shifts that includes.

What seems clear, is that barred owls are better at catching food and adapting to their environments than spotted owls. In their historical range, barred owls nested in deciduous trees, because in the east there are more deciduous trees. In the west however, the owls have shown remarkable adaptability to conifer trees as well. And, while spotted owls are rarely seen nesting in suburban areas, barred owls, while they prefer closed canopy old growth, have been found nesting in buildings, creek banks, nesting boxes, platforms, under bridges, and even on the ground. Barred owls also showed a wider prey profile than spotted owls. While spotted owls sit and wait alone for mostly mammals to swoop on, barred owls, tend to hunt in pairs, calling out to each other as they triangulate their prey. They are also generalists, and have been documented to eat a wider range of creatures from earthworms, to amphibians. There is a genius to the barred owl that I respect. But, what about the spotted owls? Certainly human beings have contributed to their demise, but where do we draw the line?

So, what at first felt like a moment of communion with Nature, was in fact the wild messy, complicated, dynamic and fluid reality of life on earth. The forest was cleansed of First Peoples and large carnivores; then it was clear cut and allowed to recover. Then it was settled and fragmented into a small city forest park with gravelled walking paths, a walking path that brought a human, a dog, two owls and a squirrel together into a single dance. I was not an observer of a fragile pristine nature, but an actor in an ever evolving drama whose characters are as big as a supernova, and small as a quark.

I have sympathy for spotted and barred owls alike. I want to see more old growth forests, not less. But something feels off about a the mass murder of an owl that is just doing its part to live and thrive, even if at the expense of another owl. Certainly my life is lived at the expense of a great many who came before me, should I be culled too?

Pacific Spirit Park is certainly a spiritual ecology for me, but I have no illusions that it is sacred because it is separate or untouched. It is sacred because it gives voice to the wild energies that make up the nonhuman world, energies that remind me that I too am wild in my core. To slaughter barred owls, somehow seems a betrayal of this, and if there were more old growth forests, or just forests in general, I am sure it would work itself out without us feeling like we needed to meddle once again in a world we seek to control.

References 

Cole, DN (2000). ‘Paradox of the Primeval: Ecological Restoration in Wilderness’. Restoration, 18:2, 77-86.

Livezey, KB (2010). “Killing barred owls to help spotted owls I: a global perspective” (PDF). Northwestern Naturalist. 91 (2): 107–133.

Livezey, KB (2010). “Killing barred owls to help spotted owls II: implications for many other range-expanding species”. Northwestern Naturalist. 91 (3): 251–270.

Livezey, KB (2009). “Range expansion of Barred Owls, part 2: facilitating ecological changes”. American Midland Naturalist. 161 (2): 323–349.

Livezey, KB (2007). “Barred owl habitat and prey: a review and synthesis of the literature.” Journal of Raptor Research 41.3: 177-201.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2011). Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, Oregon.

 

 

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