Kill an owl to save an owl?

Northern Spotted Owl numbers no more than 5,000 pairs, and may well be a species in its own right. Photo: John and Karen Hollingsworth (commons.wikimedia.org).
Northern Spotted Owl numbers no more than 5,000 pairs, and may well be a species in its own right. Photo: John and Karen Hollingsworth (commons.wikimedia.org).
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plans to shoot more than 3,600 wild Barred Owls in a bid to save the endangered Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific North-West.

Apparently desperate times bring desperate measures, as previous efforts to save the declining Northern Spotted Owl have ended in comparative disappointment. The unique subspecies of Spotted Owl, restricted to the old growth forests of the Pacific North-West and possibly a species in its own right, numbers no more than 5,000 pairs in the wild, and perhaps only 3,000 or so. This habitat preference has already resulted in it being pushed towards extinction by the logging industry, until exploitation of its remaining habitat was prevented by law in 1991. Even so, its decline continues at rate of 7.3 per cent every year.

A USFWS Environmental Impact Statement, due to be published soon, has been leaked ahead of release and suggests that they will attempt to control the spread of the Northern Spotted Owl's commoner close relative, Barred Owl. This slightly larger species has expanded its range westwards across the Great Plains from its original home in the eastern US, using the trees planted by humans in their suburban towns as a 'stepping stone' habitat, and outcompetes Spotted Owl when present in old growth forests.

Barred Owl is spreading rapidly across North America as humans build corridors of trees across the Great Plains. Photo: D Gordon E Robertson (commons.wikimedia.org).

A trial experiment in California showed that Spotted Owl was able to recover its numbers once Barred Owl was removed from a wooded area. The USFWS plans to 'remove' Barred Owl from four test sites in the Pacific North-West where the two species are known to co-exist. As Barred Owl is estimated to outnumber Spotted by five to one in some areas, it is believed by some government biologists that eradication of Barred Owl is the only way ahead.

The plan is controversial, to say the least. Opinions are polarised: the plan is said by many to be interfering with natural selection, though the threat to Spotted Owl can also be seen to be largely anthropogenic, and all conservationists and birders will have mixed emotions about such direct and brutal treatment of a wild species. Furthermore, many in the timber industry say that conservation and legislative measures may merely be to benefit a species that is irretrievable.

The USFWS's planned course of action appears to call for the removal of a very precisely enumerated 3,603 Barred Owls from sites in the states of Oregon, Washington and California over a four-year period, at an estimated cost of US$3 million. The birds will be shot, with special permits for non-game species being issued to shooters under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The final decision could well be issued before the end of August, in time for the end of the breeding season.

Federal wildlife biologist Robin Bown told the Los Angeles Times recently: “It’s a fair assessment to say that going after Barred Owl is the plan we’d prefer to pursue. We’re not sending public hunters into the woods to declare open season on the Barred Owl. This is a controlled experiment, using folks who are trained and skilled at animal removal. In our projected study areas, the removal would represent a very small percentage of Barred Owls. We’re also taking steps to mitigate habitat threats to Spotted Owl, such as large-scale fires and timber harvests. While some people feel we should leave things alone, we want to take a small step at a resolution with this experiment – after all, humans had a hand in getting Barred Owl here in the North-West.”
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