The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it will experiment with shooting barred owls in Northwest forests to keep these aggressive birds from crowding out their more genteel cousins, the federally protected northern spotted owls.
The proposal will take effect in 2014 if it wins approval within the next 30 days.
The service said it will try this option over a four-year period in four study areas: near Cle Elum in the Washington’s central Cascades, northwest of Eugene in Oregon’s central Coast Range, near Canyonville in the Oregon Cascades, and on the Hoopa Indian reservation in Northern California.
Barred owls are native to eastern North America, but only recently arrived in the West, where they have competed with spotted owls for prey and habitat of mature forests in the Pacific Northwest. They were first documented in spotted owl habitat of British Columbia in 1959. By 1973 barred owls were confirmed to be inhabiting Western Washington forests.
How To Kill Barred Owls
The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t spell out in Tuesday’s announcement how it would lethally remove barred owls. But it does in its environmental impact statement:
The plan calls for luring the owls with recorded calls and shooting them, or luring them with recorded calls and catching them in nets or other traps. The report calls this “as humane and efficient as possible.”
Today, the range of the barred owl in the western United States overlaps with the entire range of the northern spotted owl. It has been protected in the U.S. as a threatened species since 1989 in the U.S.
That listing played a big role in reducing logging activities on mature forests of the Northwest. The Clinton Administration’s Northwest Forest Plan cut logging by 90 percent on national forests. Even so, expanding barred owl numbers are increasingly seen by scientists and wildlife managers as a problem for spotted owls.
“We can’t ignore the mounting evidence that competition from barred owls is a major factor in the northern spotted owl’s decline, along with habitat loss,” said Dan Ashe, the Fish And Wildlife Service director.
Paul Henson, who supervises the service’s Oregon operations, said increased barred-owl numbers has correlated with spotted owl population decline in the same territories.
“In Washington, where barred owl populations have been present the longest, spotted owl populations have declined at the greatest rate,” he said.
As they’ve spread across the northwest, they appear to be pushing the spotted owl toward extinction.
But biologists don’t know how many barred owls are out there.
Or if it’s practical to remove them.
And that’s the point of the experiment, says Robin Bown, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“To determine how feasible it is to remove barred owls. How much effort is involved, how quickly they recover, they come back, and what kind of effect that has on spotted owls,” she said.
Bown says the agency considered relocating barred owls instead of shooting them, but couldn’t find any other states willing to take the birds.
Barred owls are larger than northern spotted owls, more aggressive and have a broader diet, which makes them more resilient to declines in habitat quality, the service said in its announcement.
The approach announced Tuesday was selected from a menu of nine options that were under consideration since 2009. Once barred owls are killed or otherwise removed, researchers will monitor the effect of such removal on northern spotted owl population trends.
If the barred owl removal experiment proceeds, effects of removal are positive, and removal proves to be a feasible and effective method to increase spotted owls, the Service may consider using barred owl removal as part of a larger barred owl management strategy.