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Almost half-a-million owls to be killed in US in attempt to save another owl species from extinction

A barred owl is shown in the woods outside Philomath, Oregon, December 2017.
A barred owl is shown in the woods outside Philomath, Oregon, December 2017. Copyright AP Photo/Don Ryan, File
Copyright AP Photo/Don Ryan, File
By Matthew Brown with AP
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One animal welfare group says US government agency "is turning from protector of wildlife to persecutor of wildlife”.

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To save the imperilled spotted owl from potential extinction, US wildlife officials are set to kill almost a half-million barred owls that are crowding out their cousins.

The contentious plan will see trained shooters deployed into dense West Coast forests.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service strategy released on Wednesday is meant to prop up declining spotted owl populations in Oregon, Washington state and California.

Documents released by the agency show up to about 450,000 barred owls would be shot over three decades after the birds from the eastern US encroached into the West Coast territory of two owls: northern spotted owls and California spotted owls.

The smaller spotted owls have been unable to compete with the invaders, which have large broods and need less room to survive than spotted owls.

'Without actively managing barred owls, northern spotted owls will likely go extinct'

Past efforts to save spotted owls focused on protecting the forests where they live, sparking bitter fights over logging but also helping slow the birds' decline. The proliferation of barred owls in recent years is undermining that earlier work, officials say.

“Without actively managing barred owls, northern spotted owls will likely go extinct in all or the majority of their range, despite decades of collaborative conservation efforts," says Fish and Wildlife Service Oregon state supervisor Kessina Lee.

The notion of killing one bird species to save another has divided wildlife advocates and conservationists. It's reminiscent of past government efforts to save West Coast salmon by killing sea lions and cormorants that prey on the fish, and to preserve warblers by killing cowbirds that lay eggs in warbler nests.

Some advocates grudgingly accepted the barred owl removal strategy; others said it is a reckless diversion from needed forest preservation.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is turning from protector of wildlife to persecutor of wildlife,” says Wayne Pacelle, founder of the advocacy group Animal Wellness Action. He predicted the program would fail because the agency won't be able to keep more barred owls from migrating into areas where others have been killed.

Wildlife technician Jordan Hazan records data in a lab from a male barred owl he shot earlier in the night, 24 October 2018, in Corvallis, Oregon.
Wildlife technician Jordan Hazan records data in a lab from a male barred owl he shot earlier in the night, 24 October 2018, in Corvallis, Oregon.AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

How will owl populations be managed?

The shootings would likely begin next spring, officials say. Barred owls would be lured using megaphones to broadcast recorded owl calls, then shot with shotguns. Carcasses would be buried on site.

The birds already are being killed by researchers in some spotted owl habitats, with about 4,500 removed since 2009, says Robin Bown, barred owl strategy leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those targeted included barred owls in California’s Sierra Nevada region, where the animals have only recently arrived and officials want to stop populations from taking hold.

In other areas where barred owls are more established, officials aim to reduce their numbers but acknowledge shooting owls is unlikely to eliminate them entirely.

Supporters include the American Bird Conservancy and other conservation groups.

Barred owls don’t belong in the West, says American Bird Conservancy Vice President Steve Holmer. Killing them is unfortunate, he adds, but reducing their numbers could allow them to live alongside spotted owls over the long term.

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“As the old forests are allowed to regrow, hopefully coexistence is possible and maybe we don’t need to do as much” shooting, Holmer says.

The killings would reduce North American barred owl numbers by less than 1 per cent annually, officials say. That compares with potential extinction for spotted owls, should the problem go unaddressed.

Because barred owls are aggressive hunters, removing them also could help other West Coast species that they've been preying on such as salamanders and crayfish, says Tom Wheeler, director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a California-based conservation group.

Public hunting of barred owls wouldn't be allowed. The wildlife service would designate government agencies, landowners, Native tribes or companies to carry out the killings. Shooters would have to provide documentation of training or experience in owl identification and firearm skills.

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A female barred owl sits on a branch in the wooded hills, December 2017, outside Philomath, Oregon.
A female barred owl sits on a branch in the wooded hills, December 2017, outside Philomath, Oregon.AP Photo/Don Ryan, File

Is barred owl expansion a natural ecological phenomenon?

The publishing in the coming days of a final environmental study on the proposal will open a 30-day comment period before a final decision is made.

The barred owl plan follows decades of conflict between conservationists and timber companies, which cut down vast areas of older forests where spotted owls reside.

Early efforts to save the birds culminated in logging bans in the 1990s that roiled the timber industry and its political supporters in Congress.

Yet spotted owl populations continued declining after barred owls started showing up on the West Coast several decades ago. Across the region at least half of spotted owls have been lost, with declines of 75 per cent or more in some study areas, says Katherine Fitzgerald, who leads the wildlife service's northern spotted owl recovery program.

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Opponents say the mass killing of barred owls would cause severe disruption to forest ecosystems and could lead to other species - including spotted owls - being mistakenly shot. They’ve also challenged the notion that barred owls don’t belong on the West Coast, characterising their expanding range as a natural ecological phenomenon.

Researchers say barred owls moved westward by one of two routes: across the Great Plains, where trees planted by settlers gave them a foothold in new areas; or via Canada’s boreal forests, which have become more hospitable as temperatures rise because of climate change.

Northern spotted owls are federally protected as a threatened species. Federal officials determined in 2020 that their continued decline merited an upgrade to the more critical designation of 'endangered'. But the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to do so at the time, saying other species took priority.

California spotted owls were proposed for federal protections last year. A decision is pending.

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Under former President Donald Trump, government officials stripped habitat protections for spotted owls at the behest of the timber industry. Those were reinstated under President Joe Biden after the Interior Department said political appointees under Trump relied on faulty science to justify their weakening of protections.

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