Barred owls are bigger than spotted owls, less picky about their food and more adaptable to habitat. So, for almost a decade, as successful management of old growth habitat has been debatable — the bigger cousins have encroached on spotted owl territory. That territory is limited to parts of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California.
Northern spotted owls are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
A controversial plan to eliminate the threat from spotted owl’s big cousin began to take root in 2007 under the Bush administration. It’s too difficult and costly to trap barred owls, experts have claimed, so they decided to shoot them instead. They also opined that few zoos would be willing to take any trapped owls, but no word on why the less picky barred owls couldn’t be released into far-away territories.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service hopes the culling of 3,600 barred owls over a four year period will be a “permanent” solution, according to biologist Robin Bown. "We're going to look at all potential opportunities, but the most humane way to do it is to shoot them. It's a difficult concept, to say I'm going to kill one species to try to save another species. But it's also something that, in some cases, we need to do."
However, Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service, disagreed and claimed that reducing the numbers of barred owls by shooting them should not reasonably be considered a “long-term” solution. "To try to control barred owls across a large region would be incredibly expensive, and you'd have to keep doing it forever because if you ever stopped, they would begin to come back into those areas," said Forsman.
Nonetheless, it seems to have come down to the dead-owl-flying end game for barred owls as the controversial “humane” experiment is set to begin this fall in the first of four designated areas. The first area is near the Hoopa Indian Reservation about 60 miles inland from the Northern California coast.
The four-year plan is experimental to see if eliminating barred owls from a target area will entice spotted owls to repopulate. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits killing nongame birds, the plan requires a special permit.
Barred owl hunting in the other three areas will start in fall 2014. They include the area near the Cascade Range near Cle Elum, Washington, the Oregon Coast not far from Salem and the Klamath Mountains south of Roseburg, Oregon.
Northern spotted owls rose to legendary status in the 1990s, when they became the controversial “little bird” that turned the logging industry on its heels. The federal government set aside millions of acres of forest to protect them. A grand battle between loggers and wildlife groups ensued but in spite of efforts to save their habitat, spotted owls have never recovered.
Human development has been cited for the reason barred owls, originally from eastern states, have moved into fragments of Western forests where biologists say spotted owls still remain in as few numbers as 20 in some areas.
"If we don't manage barred owls, the probability of recovering the spotted owl goes down significantly," Paul Henson, Oregon state supervisor for Fish and Wildlife told the Seattle Times. He believes the Northwest Forest Plan has protected habitat for spotted owls, so it must be the incursion of barred owls that is dampening their recovery.
However, no one argues that barred owls should be managed, it’s the method of “management” that is in question.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, said the focus on saving spotted owls should be on preserving their habitat. “We remain unconvinced that this strategy, which will result in the death of thousands of barred owls will be effective, and we are deeply concerned that the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to do an inadequate job of protecting old habitat.”
Invariably, the backdrop of such ethical dilemmas when humans get involved in deciding which species should die in order to preserve another species often includes human economic interests. No doubt, the battle will continue as the bulging human population is set to exceed 9 billion in the next decade, with a correlating mass extinction of incalculable numbers of species, which may well include the Northern spotted owl.
The Fish and Wildlife Service needs hard scientific evidence that killing barred owls will help before going forward with a long-term program, which is the aim of the experiment.
A final plan is due later this month.
NOTE: Author Jean Williams grew up on the Hoopa Indian Reservation after her family moved there in 1960 when her father accepted a position in the local sawmill. The love of nature became instilled in her soul during those formative years.
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Jean Williams, environmental and political journalist; PrairieDogPress writer; Artistic Director, Keystone Prairie Dogs.***PrairieDogPress is the media channel for keystone-prairie-dogs.com, which is a fundraising website to support environmental groups for extraordinary efforts to protect Great Plains habitat and prairie dogs in the wild. PDP uses humorous images, social commentary and serious-minded political reports to challenge government on numerous levels, including accountability to the people, the protection of threatened species, the environment and Earth’s natural resources.