It must be hard to be a scientist these days. The work is often difficult and thankless. Heck, most of the public doesn’t even understand the basics of any type of research. They wouldn’t know the difference between a chromosome and a chrome bumper on an F-150.
Such ignorance doesn’t stop a loud and litigious minority of critics from taking to the Internet or trooping into court every time something they don’t understand attracts their attention. It’s been seen a lot in agriculture, as semi-informed self-anointed “experts” rail against everything from gluten to genetically modified corn. The horror!
Yet, when they are quizzed, they know next to nothing about the science. In short, they know what they read on the Internet and not much else. We’re reminded of the car insurance advertisement on television in which a woman says her new friend that she met through the Internet is a French model. The guy, when he shows up, can’t even say “bonjour,” but it said on the Internet that he was from France.
Most recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was dragged into court over an experiment its scientists have been conducting in an attempt to rescue the northern spotted owl from possible extinction. Though the spotted owl ranges from the Pacific Northwest southward into Mexico, it was declared as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. That designation has done massive damage to the region’s timber industry, because the spotted owl prefers old growth trees as its habitat.
Nowadays, the sight of a logger is not causing the spotted owl problems. Instead, it’s a relative. The barred owl has moved into Northern California and Northwest forests in recent years. Compared with the spotted owl, the barred owl is a bully. It is a better hunter and outcompetes with his spotted cousin in nearly every way.
Wildlife scientists whose job is protecting the spotted owl could do one of two things: nothing, which means the spotted owl would likely succumb to the barred owl; or they could try an experiment to take pressure off the spotted owl by reducing the number of barred owls.
They chose the latter. They came up with an experiment in which barred owls would be killed. Remember: The barred owl is not a protected species but is threatening a protected species.
That experiment was enough to get the Fish and Wildlife Service scientists dragged into court. Friends of Animals and Predator Defense, two animal rights groups, argue that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to evaluate alternatives to lethal removal of barred owls.
Again, barred owls are not protected, yet in the eyes of these groups, the agency should have come up with another way to get rid of them. Hmm, maybe they could feed the barred owls GMO gluten, if there was such a thing.
So federal scientists were caught in the middle of a quandary only an environmental lawyer could love. They could kill the barred owls and get sued, or they could let barred owls kill spotted owls and get sued. Either way, the environmental lawyers win.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken saw through the groups’ arguments and has allowed the scientists to continue the experiment that could, if successful, return the population of northern spotted owls to health.
But the story isn’t over. The environmental groups say they may appeal the judge’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
That would accomplish exactly nothing, except give these groups something to write about on the Internet, of course.