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April 19, 2014

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Pot farm poison suspected in owl deaths

About half of the barred owls examined by UC Davis researchers tested positive for rat poison. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)
About half of the barred owls examined by UC Davis researchers tested positive for rat poison. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)

Who’s to blame for the deaths of owls in parts of the Pacific Northwest?

According to research funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, it could be pot farmers, who use rat poison to keep their tender greens safe from furry invaders.

Scientists are now looking into a possible correlation between owl deaths and rat poison. Of roughly 10 dead owls examined by UC Davis researchers, about half have tested positive for rat poison.

In the illustrious reefer-growing region of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties known as the Emerald Triangle, owls feed on pesky rodents that abound in the illegal farms.

Northern spotted owls, a threatened species that live in Southern Oregon and Northern California, have been declining at the rate of 5 percent to 15 percent a year from 1990 to 2008, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Before we get ahead of ourselves and peg pot farms as the scourge of our forest friends, let’s remember that other factors could contribute to the deaths.

For one, barred owls — a pushy, invasive cousin from the East — has been shoving spotted owls out of their territory since the 1990s, a situation that any native West Coaster can relate to.

In fact, since finding dead spotted owls in the wild is so rare, the UC Davis research has principally been conducted using barred owls. 84 barred owls killed in connection with research were tested, as were two spotted owls found dead in Mendocino County.

Continued loss of old growth forest habitat forms a second major threat to spotted owls.

Common household rat poison used in illegal pot gardens has already been fingered for the deaths of fishers, a weasel-like creature under consideration for protection by the Endangered Species Act.

It’s doubtful that the spotted owls are any less averse to the poison, and it’s even possible that they are more susceptible to poisons than other types of owls, like the barred, because they primarily feast on rodents rather than a wider range of prey.

In the meantime, it’s too soon to tell if the agriculture that makes so many people blissfully chill is killing a threatened species. So, next time you spark up — which you totally have a legal prescription for — there’s something more to ponder.

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