Think Out Loud

USFWS proposes shooting barred owls to save spotted owls

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Nov. 30, 2023 5:42 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Nov. 30

A northern spotted owl in the old growth forest of Oregon

FILE - A northern spotted owl in the old growth forest of Oregon in an undated file photo.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed shooting over 400,000 barred owls over the next 30 years in order to save endangered spotted owls. Barred owls have migrated here from the Eastern U.S. and adapted well to the environment — they can survive in more habitats and eat more species than the spotted owls. USFWS has experimented with shooting barred owls in the past, and now proposes doing it on a much larger scale. Kessina Lee, the state supervisor of Oregon’s USFWS office, and Robin Bown, barred owl management strategy lead for USFWS, join us to discuss the proposal.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed shooting over 400,000 barred owls over the next 30 years in order to save endangered spotted owls. Barred owls migrated here from the Eastern U.S. and they’ve essentially outcompeted their smaller cousins. The agency has experimented with shooting barred owls in the past. Now, they are proposing to do it on a much larger scale. Kessina Lee is the supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Oregon. Robin Brown is the agency’s barred owl management strategy lead. They both join us now. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Kessina Lee: Thanks for having us.

Robin Brown: Thank you.

Miller: So, Robin Brown, first. It’s been a little while since we’ve talked about northern spotted owls and barred owls. Can you remind us why barred owls are doing so much better than their endangered cousins?

Brown: Well, it really comes down to the fact that barred owls are generalists in terms of their prey base, they’re predators. They focus on a wide variety of species which gives them a wide range of food types and therefore habitats to be in. They are slightly larger, as you mentioned, and a bit more aggressive than spotted owls and that allows them to push spotted owls out of spotted owl habitat. Their food habits overlap with spotted owls. They like the same foods that spotted owls like, the same prey like flying squirrels, wood rats and red tree voles. But because they use these other species like salamanders, other mammals and birds, insects, even snails and earthworms, they can pack into an area, they can use a smaller territory and they can pack into an area. So the spotted owls become not just competing with a single pair of barred owls, but up to four pairs of barred owls to try to maintain their territory. And they just don’t succeed in doing that. They tend to get excluded pretty quickly.

Miller: What does this mean in terms of the two populations in the Northwest right now?

Brown: The two species you mean?

Miller: Exactly, yes.

Brown: Spotted owl populations have been in decline for quite some time, particularly in areas where we have dense barred owls. They have gone into pretty steep declines and we are down to very few spotted owls left now in Washington and in Northern Oregon, and we’re rapidly reaching that condition in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Barred owl populations, on the other hand, as with any species that invades a new habitat have been kind of exploding, being able to use this wide variety of food types that haven’t experienced owl predation before, at least not at this level. And so their populations have been increasing exponentially up to a point in most of the range. We still have very steep growth curves for this species. So we estimate that the current population of barred owls - and this is an estimate based on a lot of assumptions, so bear with me - in the northern spotted owl range [of] Washington, Oregon and Northern California, is well over 100,000.

Miller: If nothing is done right now to the barred owl population, what would happen to spotted owls?

Brown: In a word, extinction. We have no, we have located no situations in which spotted owls can outcompete barred owls, no habitat types, no conditions where that occurs.

Miller: Kessina Lee, this is a big question perhaps, but what does the Endangered Species Act require of your agency when it comes to spotted owls, specifically given what we’ve just been hearing from Robin Brown?

Lee: Sure. Well, I think to put it succinctly, on behalf of the American people, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies have not just a legal but an ethical responsibility to do everything we can within the bounds of our respective authorities and funding to prevent extinction and to help recovery.

Miller: In other words, doing nothing to barred owls, it’s not a legal option?

Lee: I think we have the obligation to turn over every rock. So I don’t know if there wasn’t a barred owl strategy, if we hadn’t seen results, that we would be legally required to develop this exact strategy. But yes, addressing the two clear threats, habitat loss and negative impacts of invasive barred owls, we do have an obligation under our authorities to address both of those things.

Miller: Robin Brown, I understand that the agency did consider some other options in terms of controlling barred owl populations, short of shotguns. What are some other possibilities that were considered and discarded?

Brown: There’s two basic approaches to reducing a population. One is what we call reproductive interference, sterilization, and the other is outside of lethal removal would be nonlethal removal. Sterilization can work with some species, but it requires that you capture the animals, sterilize them and then usually release them back into the wild. The problem we have is that they are creating their problem in the wild, sterilizing them does not reduce their competition with barred owls, or spotted owls. They continue to keep those spotted owls out of the territories until such time as the barred owl dies. Now it’s not producing young. So the population is not increasing because of that individual. But by the time the barred owl dies, the spotted owls in the area have also died, because they have no territories. So that doesn’t really allow us to address the really urgent need to reduce those barred owl populations now.

The other possibility is nonlethal removal. That would be basically capturing birds and then doing something with them. The two choices there are to put them somewhere else and/or to put them in a cage for the rest of their life. Now, we don’t want to release these birds elsewhere in the west and spread the impact of this nonnative predator to other native species because, as I mentioned, they prey on a large number of species that have a potential to have a pretty big impact on those species.

Miller: They sound a little bit like humans, actually, the way you’re describing them.

Brown: They totally do, but I wasn’t going to say that.


Miller: Oh, well, I can say it. I’m not offended.

Brown: And then we did toy with the idea of sending them back east where they came from. But really, they have as many barred owls in the east as they have habitat for. Their habitat is full. They’re not doing poorly in most areas and they don’t really need the additional competition of dumping a bunch of new birds in on them. Plus, we would risk the potential of moving diseases or parasites from the west into our native eastern population.

So finally, you have, I guess, the caging option, but owls are actually difficult to keep in captivity. And even aside the moral issue of putting a wild animal in a cage for the rest of its life, there’s simply not enough qualified facilities to house these animals for the 10 years or more that they would live following capture.

Miller: And that is how you ended up where you are right now. Can you describe the actual, the plan that you are proposing, what it entails?

Brown: Sure, the plan, I should stress first, is a voluntary plan. In other words, it is set up to allow people to do this, to allow entities, federal agencies, state agencies, tribal agencies or private entities to conduct activities under this strategy. But it does not require any of that. We don’t, we aren’t saying you have to go out and do this on your piece of property. For the northern spotted owl, the strategy in Oregon is based around sort of a three pronged process: protecting current spotted owl sites, sites that are still occupied or have been recently occupied by spotted owls and where the spotted owls may still be hanging around in the area, by removing barred owls around that site and a bit of a buffer around that site. That’s a short term element though because it doesn’t really give you room to grow a population.

Then we have mapped out some large what we call general management areas. And within these relatively large areas, we are encouraging anyone who wants to implement this, including the Service, to develop what are called focal management areas. So these are in the 50 pair area size range for spotted owls, a fairly good chunk of ground that we could then go to remove barred owls and that gives you a little more room for the populations that are there to survive and then to grow as they have the opportunity. And then there are a few other areas where we’ve identified the need for connectivity between these management areas as time goes on and as we start to get populations of spotted owls recolonizing or reoccupying those sites. So that’s the primary sort of three steps of the strategy in Oregon.

Miller: And just to be clear, when you say removing at this point, you mean somebody with a shotgun identifying that it is indeed a barred owl, not a spotted owl, and shooting them?

Brown: Yes, correct. Within our strategy, we also have what we call a protocol or the procedures that people have to have to be able to remove barred owls, the training, the identification ability, and then the process for doing that to ensure that we don’t affect or don’t injure or kill non-targeted species. We have used this protocol in our experiment that we did previously. Other experiments are going on using the same protocol and we have had no accidental removals of spotted owls to date.

Miller: Given, as you’ve both described, the kind of existential threat facing spotted owls, why make this a voluntary plan as opposed to just the prescribed management plan?

Brown: Well, we don’t have the authority to tell people that they have to go out and do an activity like this. If you look into the recovery plans, our recovery plans are voluntary also in that they do not require agencies to do things or entities to do them. What they do is give people a list of those things that need to be done that they can go to, and in this case, we have gone a step further in that we have not only created the, here’s where things should occur, here’s the priority of those occurrences. We are also, as part of the strategy, going to get a Migratory Bird Treaty Act permit - I’ll come back to that in a moment - under the Service that we can use to authorize people to do the activities specific to this strategy. That allows people to then implement the strategy more easily.

Now, barred owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act because they are a species that occurs in the United States. The act does not differentiate between invasive and native populations of these species. And therefore you need a permit to be able to remove them. And that is part of the process that people have to go through. We did, with our experiment, you would have to go through the management. So we’re actually trying to set it up so that we make it easier for people to do this kind of activity and encourage them to do it. But we simply don’t have the authority to tell anyone that they have to do this.

Miller: Kessina Lee, my understanding is that the agency hired an ethicist to reckon with these issues before your time. But are you familiar with what the ethicist found, the way the philosophical thinking filtered through the agency?

Lee: I think it’s a really important question, and one that comes up often. So there wasn’t an ethicist brought in as part of a broad stakeholder participation in ahead of developing the experimental barred removal program and essentially to consider with those stakeholders and understand what their concerns were around the ethics of this. And really, what it came down to is when we’re talking about the likely extinction of a species, however unpalatable and uncomfortable the conversation is of lethal removal of another species, people generally accept that this is sometimes necessary. We’re talking about, rather than choosing to conserve one bird over the other, this is about conserving two species. Spotted owls are fighting for their existence right now. Whereas, even if the service was able to remove the number of barred owls over the next 30 years that is considered in the plan, that would represent less than 1% of the global population of barred owls.

So, none of us consider lethal removals, I think, when we’re starting to pursue our careers as wildlife biologists, but when you consider likely extinction and impacts to the whole ecosystem, we come to a place of accepting that this is the reality we’re in, particularly when human alterations to the system are part of what has created this situation.

Miller: That last part seems like an important ethical consideration because correct me if I’m wrong here, but one of the reasons not just that spotted owl populations have declined say, because of logging of old growth historically, but one of the reasons that barred owls are here is because of human migration and changes continent-wide to the landscape. How does that factor into your thinking here? I mean, the analogy may not be great for some reasons, but I guess the way I think about it is it’s almost as if someone put up a bird feeder to help out some birds that weren’t getting enough seeds in the winter and then a squirrel came because they were attracted by the seeds that humans put, and then you shoot the squirrel because you because it’s eating the seeds for the birds. It’s not a perfect analogy. But I don’t know, it’s not terrible either.

I guess, I’m just wondering how you think about the fact that the barred owls are here largely because of us.

Lee: I think it’s a great point and we are frequently asked, should we just let nature take its course? You’ve got an owl, is it essentially replacing this other owl and should you just let that happen? And, I think our first response is, it’s not really nature taking its course. Essentially, we’re correcting for past human influence, because you’re absolutely right. It was the European settlement that allowed barred owls to sort of breach this historic barrier of the Great Plains and the Northern Boreal Forest. And with that in mind, we do feel we have potentially a greater ethical responsibility because we made those alterations to the landscape and the climate that allowed barred owls to come west.

And then, the other point is that barred owls are not an ecological replacement for spotted owls. As Robin’s been describing, they have the potential to impact a lot of other species

and scientists are worried about their potential to destabilize the entire ecosystem.

Miller: Robin, it’s possible there’s more data since the last time we talked about this issue on this show. But a couple of years ago, we talked about a study focused on five different sites in the Northwest where killing barred owls to help spotted owls was looked at. And in the study areas where barred owls were not killed, spotted owl populations declined by about 12% each year. In the places where barred owls were killed, there was only a 0.2% annual decline. So much better, but even there, the spotted owl population was not increasing. It was ever so slightly decreasing. What does that mean to you?

Brown: Well, remember that spotted owls don’t reproduce like rabbits, or we wouldn’t have a problem. They’re slow to reproduce. So, in our experiments which ran, most of them ran four to five years time frame, we had time to affect the survival of those owls that were there, to allow them to sort of restabilize on territories, and even in a couple of cases, to have new spotted owls move in and settle on territories. But we hadn’t yet gotten sort of a flush of reproduction. Typically, spotted owls don’t reproduce every year. They often reproduce every other year at best or maybe even every third year. So we hadn’t really had a flush of reproduction to provide young to settle into these empty sites that we had created. So to some degree, spotted owls, being specialists as they are, they are kind of in a slow growth mode. It just takes longer than I think we had time in our experiment to detect.

Miller: And the hope is that with more time, there will be a bigger impact?

Brown: Yeah, and there will be an opportunity for birds to reproduce, for those young to settle on these new territories and then themselves reproduce. It’s not, unfortunately, a very quick response, in the case of spotted owls. They don’t respond as quickly as even barred owls can, which is part of why they’re losing the battle right now.

Miller: Robin Brown and Kessina Lee, thanks very much.

Lee: Thank you.

Miller: Kessina Lee is the state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon Fish and Wildlife office. Robin Brown is the agency’s barred owl management strategy lead.

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