Barred owl removal plan gets green light

Barred owls compete with their smaller, less aggressive cousins, the spotted owl. The federal government plans to experiment in the Northwest with killing barred owls to see if spotted owls will benefit.

Barred owls compete with their smaller, less aggressive cousins, the spotted owl. The federal government plans to experiment in the Northwest with killing barred owls to see if spotted owls will benefit. Wikimedia commons photo by Dick Daniels


Federal officials are planning to shoot and trap non-native barred owls in Kittitas County as part of an experiment to help their endangered cousin, the spotted owl.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided this week to move ahead with a $3 million project that aims to remove about 3,600 barred owls from four sites of prime spotted owl habitat in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, including 440,000 acres near Cle Elum that includes national forest, state and private lands. Owls would be removed from half the study area, while the other half would serve as a control. A few owls may be relocated, but most will be killed.

Spotted owls, an iconic species in the Pacific Northwest, have been on the decline for decades and are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Habitat loss was seen as the primary cause for years, but increasing evidence points also to competition from barred owls that have recently moved into the region, said Robin Brown, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Wildlife based in Portland.

“Barred owls are not native to this area, they are native to the East Coast,” Brown said. “They are more aggressive and have behavioral traits that lead them to be more competitive.”

An invasive species, barred owls are territorial and aggressive. They harass and even kill spotted owls. Unlike spotted owls, which prefer flying squirrels, barred owls tend to eat a wider variety of foods, including small mammals, such as rodents. That gives the barred owls an ability to live in a wide variety of environments, while spotted owls tend to stay in old-growth forest.

The plan is to remove barred owls for four years and collect data to see if the open habitat actually helps the spotted owl population grow or if other barred owls will just move in. Removal in the Cle Elum area is expected to start in fall 2014, following bird surveys conducted in the spring to get better estimates of the population size. Brown said they hope to remove about 90 percent of the barred owls.

Lethal and nonlethal capture techniques will be used to remove the barred owls.

“Yes, these people will technically be hunting owls, but they aren’t hunters per se,” said Brent Lawrence, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. “Trained biologists will be doing the removal.”

The capture-and-relocate option requires finding new homes for the birds, and so far Fish and Wildlife has only found five new homes for the owls at zoos and nature centers. That means almost all of the removed birds will be killed, a controversial option.

This is far from the first controversy in the spotted owl’s recovery plans. After its listing in 1990, environmental groups saw the owl’s protection as a new tool to protect old-growth forests, while the timber industry saw those habitat protections putting them out of business.

Killing some owls to save other owls does seem like a drastic measure, but Lawrence said after long conversations with stakeholder groups and an ethicist, most agreed that the removal experiment was worth a try.

“This is not something the Fish and Wildlife Service does lightly. We don’t like the idea of going out and having to kill this beautiful bird,” Brown said. “But we don’t like the idea of the spotted owl going extinct, either. We’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Marina Skumanich, executive director of the Seattle Audubon Society, said that the group is open to removal research if done with a humane and scientific protocol, but they don’t want to see barred owl removal become the primary management tool.

“We neither support nor oppose it, but as a general rule, we don’t want people to get distracted by this approach to management,” said Skumanich. “We think the focus should continue to be on habitat conservation.”


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