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Should barred owls be shot to save endangered spotted owls?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Northern spotted owl, via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceThe ever-controversial northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1990, but despite the best efforts of lawmakers and conservationists the bird’s population numbers continue to dwindle. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has a radical plan to help the raptor: kill some of the barred owls (S. varia) that are outcompeting their spotted cousins for food and habitat.

Spotted owls became notorious following several decades, starting in the 1980s, of back-and-forth lawsuits as environmentalists tried to end logging in the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests, the habitat the owls depend on for their nests and food. Logging on federal land was banned in 1991, and since then logging in Oregon alone has declined 95 percent, from 4.9 billion board feet of timber in 1988 to just 240 million board feet in 2009, according to The Oregonian. But even with less of its habitat being destroyed the spotted owl population has yet to bounce back.

Aside from its shrinking habitat, the major threat now, according to the FWS, is the growing number of barred owls in the area. These birds are more aggressive, can live in any type of forest, and eat more types of food than spotted owls, making them more adaptable to the current Pacific Northwest landscape.

According to the FWS’s latest draft recovery plan for the spotted owl: "Limited experimental evidence, correlational studies and copious anecdotal information all strongly suggest barred owls compete with spotted owls for nesting sites, roosting sites and food—and possibly predate spotted owls. The threat posed by barred owls to spotted owl recovery is better understood now than when the spotted owl was listed. Because the abundance of barred owls continues to increase, the effectiveness in addressing this threat depends on action as soon as possible."

The recovery plan doesn’t spell it out how it would control the barred owl population, but The Oregonian reports that "over the next year, in three or more study areas from Washington [State] to northern California, they might kill 1,200 to 1,500 barred owls."

(This might not actually be quite legal without changing existing laws, as killing any owls is currently against California law under the state’s Fish and Game Code. According to the FWS recovery plan, "this statute could hinder the ability to reduce the effects of barred owls on spotted owls in the southern portion of the range.")

It’s a tough idea that pleases no one. "There’s no winner in that debate," Bob Sallinger, conservation director with the Audubon Society of Portland, told The Oregonian.

The draft recovery plan was released in September 2010. It addresses numerous other threats to spotted owls, including habitat loss, climate change, forest fires and inadequate protective regulations. More than 11,700 public comments have been received on the plan, which the FWS says is expected to be finalized early this year.

Previously in Extinction Countdown: Eagle versus cormorant: What to do when one rare species starts eating another?

Photo: Northern spotted owl, via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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  1. 1. Semiahmoo 4:59 pm 02/16/2011

    Have I got this right? The spotted owls are dying out, mainly because of habitat loss. Barred owls aren’t in such a bad way but are being pressured by habitat loss and kill spotted owls, taking their territory. So, to protect the spotted owls, humans will intervene and kill barred owls. Why not address habitat loss? Carbon dioxide remediation indicates planting trees would be of great benefit. It would also recover some owl territory. Governments plan only for the short term; they worry about elections. Thus, killing barred owls is the prescribed solution.

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  2. 2. argentwolfwing 6:18 pm 02/16/2011

    Who is to say that the spotted owl is "better" somehow than the barred owl? Because that’s what this measure is proposing, that somehow the spotted owl is superior. We are major contributors to all the owls’ troubles, but that means that we should address our own part in it, not kill another species because it is another species! I agree with Semiahmoo, that we should be focusing on decreasing habitat destruction. Isn’t this the process of natural selection in action? The situation is far from natural in the sense that we have destroyed habitat, but it is natural in the sense that the owls are facing new selective pressures. Are we going to play god now?

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  3. 3. evolve 1:12 am 02/17/2011

    The plan to shoot barred owls shows a real lack of understanding of basic evolutionary principles. Species are a moving point in a lineage, a continuum…not an end point. The barred owl is a cogeneric species that is better adapted to the more generalist forest conditions that are now most prevalent…by breeding the two species are helping facilitate offspring that are better adapted to the changing conditions. How stupid to interfere with the natural mechanism that will ensure the survival of the lineage!! Such plans really reflect badly on the Fish and Wildlife Service, and biologists eager to play games with guns and owls lives.

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  4. 4. JamesDavis 7:57 am 02/17/2011

    We allowed greedy barons destroy the Spotted Owl’s habitat and now we want to destroy the species that can live in our death and destruction. The Spotted Owl may not come back until its habitat is restored to accommodate its life style. That may take 3 to 5 hundred years and only then if the same trees are in place that originally provided the Spotted Owl its home and food. Humans have already destroyed the Spotted Owl, so leave it alone and let nature take its course. If it is meant for the Spotted Owl to survive our onslaught, then nature will provide it a home somewhere else.

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  5. 5. AverageJoeSixPac 1:49 am 02/22/2011

    People, relax and let your propellors spin down. LEAVE NATURE ALONE. Nature takes care of itself. Man has failed trying to social engineer his own species, what makes you think he can social engineer that of animals?

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  6. 6. AverageJoeSixPac 2:10 am 02/22/2011

    And I wonder who is the ultimate one that decides that some species shouldn’t die out, Or who is suppose to stay and who is suppose to go. I am glad that nature took care of T-REX and his cousins back millions of years ago so I wouldn’t have any trying to sneek in my back yard at night. I have enough trouble with Racoons as it is, but I’m willing to let NATURE decide if they stay or die out.

    For millions of years, species have came and species have gone, and to think that we as Humans should decide what species we want to survive is the ultimate in arrogance. We are not God, We are not nature.

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  7. 7. dmummert 5:50 pm 02/23/2011

    You have it slightly canted. This isn’t about habitat *loss* per se. This is about one protected species’ ability to better adapt to a newly protected environment. Owls are territorial and will prey on anything they can kill, including smaller owls. Normally they prey on easy targets, which means rodents and small snakes. If their territory becomes marginally depleted, they will expand their range and the acceptability of ‘species=food’. I’ve had a long association with the local raptor rescue center here in Yellow Springs.

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  8. 8. dmummert 6:04 pm 02/23/2011

    "Who is to say that the spotted owl is "better" somehow than the barred owl?"

    The statement is meaningless. Better doesn’t apply. The point is to rescue a species that is in danger of disappearing. It isn’t evolutionary or natural selection, or because the spotted owl is a weaker bird – we screwed up about a century ago and only just realized it in the last few decades. Now we are being responsible and trying to save as many as we can. We won’t be able to rescue them all. Just some of the more obvious ones.

    I don’t like the idea of killing the barred owl either – but I also don’t really have any alternative ideas right now. Honestly I don’t think I would have come up with this idea right away if I were in committee working on this problem. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me. Catching them and relocating them will not work. You’ve got a phenomenally huge set of other problems to work out for that to fly. My Indian blood says this is wrong – but this is right. My scientist head says – give me another alternative, because we’re running out of choices and time.

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  9. 9. bucketofsquid 1:22 pm 02/24/2011

    I think the real lesson here is that eco-nuts suffered a terrible delusion that sustainable forresting is bad and so we should force clear cutting of forrest in other countries. When the sustainable forresting ended the clear cutting in other areas ramped up. It also led to massive loss of habitat due to the large fires that naturally occur when forrests are not maintained artificially by people.

    It was also discovered that "old growth forrest" doesn’t take hundreds of years but actually only takes about 50 years to be suitable for spotted owl habitat.

    I noticed that the article says that barred owls probably predate the spotted owl. This probably means the spotted owl is actually an invasive species and the natural order is for the barred owl to restore its own dominance.

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  10. 10. verdai 6:01 pm 03/4/2011

    this cant be the only option.

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