A federal judge has dismissed a third lawsuit filed by an environmental group to stop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from shooting barred owls in an experimental attempt to boost numbers of the endangered spotted owl.

At the same time, the service is struggling to explain if the program made any difference.

Northern spotted owls were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. Environmental groups blamed its dwindling numbers on the logging of old growth forests, the owl’s preferred habitat. As a result, logging in the Northwest, particularly on federal lands, was greatly reduced.

While this had a devastating impact on local economies built on the timber industry, it didn’t seem to do much for spotted owl populations. Wildlife managers say that’s because another species, the barred owl, moved into the territory.

The barred owl is native to the Eastern United States, though for more than a century it’s been making its way farther West. It’s bigger and more aggressive than the spotted owl, pushing its little cousin out of its territory. It also is more adaptable, preying on a variety of small animals, birds and reptiles where the spotted owl has a more limited diet.

Five years ago the Fish and Wildlife Service began an experimental program of shooting barred owls in selected locations to reduce pressure on spotted owls. The project is controversial, even within the service, because it involves killing one protected, although plentiful, species to revive another.

Enter the Friends of Animals, which has filed three separate lawsuits to block the service from shooting barred owls. Each has been dismissed. Last month U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled the nonprofit lacked the legal standing to file its third complaint in federal court. The group plans an appeal.

For its part, the government has not been able to show the program has done anything to boost spotted owl populations. It has markedly reduced barred owl populations. Since the experiment began, the agency has removed 2,086 barred owls through the end of 2018, up from 1,148 at the end of 2017.

The service hopes to have enough data compiled this month to have a more conclusive analysis of the program by mid year.

So, the saga of the spotted owl continues.

All of this would be somewhat amusing if farmers, ranchers and loggers in the Pacific Northwest didn’t have a stake in the Endangered Species Act and wildlife restoration projects undertaken by government agencies.

One of the most vexing aspects of the ESA is the lawsuits that it generates. Farmers and ranchers too often find themselves the defendants. But the government — i.e. taxpayers — isn’t immune to lawsuits.

Any time the government kills one species — sea lions, cormorants, barred owls — in a dubious attempt to save another, someone sues. Who could foresee that?

We love a good farce, but this whole affair is just one example of how the ESA is fundamentally broken. Congress must fix it.

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