The survival of one owl species hinges on the demise of another.
That’s what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argues in its proposal to allow the agency to shoot hundreds of thousands of barred owls over the next 30 years in West Coast forests. The service says the barred owl, which is not native to the region, is crowding out the spotted owl, a close genetic relative.
Without action against the barred owls, service biologists say the spotted owl could disappear from parts of Washington and Oregon within a few years and eventually go extinct.
The proposal is the latest in a series of efforts to save the spotted owl, whose decline became a rallying point for environmentalists opposed to logging in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s.
Human influence — as European settlers spread west — likely caused the barred owl to colonize the Pacific Northwest. Now, the proposal raises questions about how far people should go to save a species and the costs of righting a historic ecological wrong.
“It’s not the barred owls’ fault. It’s our fault for bringing them out here. It’s not the spotted owls’ fault either,” said Robin Brown, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who is the agency’s barred owl strategy lead. “The species’ future is extinction if we don’t manage barred owls. The writing is on the wall.”
The agency’s proposal, which calls for a total of more than 470,000 barred owls to be “lethally removed” — killed with shotguns — remains in draft form and is open for public comment through Jan. 16.
Spotted versus barred
An undiscriminating eye might struggle to tell spotted and barred owls apart. Both have pale faces and brown-and-white mottled coats. They are in the same genus. Before the 20th century, a major differentiating factor was where they lived: the barred owl in the Eastern U.S. and the spotted owl in the forests of the U.S. West.
But the barred owl is slightly bigger, quicker to reproduce, more aggressive and less discriminating about where it makes its home and what it eats.
Spotted owl populations have declined by about 75% in the past two decades and continue to decline about 5% each year, largely because of barred owls, according to an environmental impact statement describing the USFWS proposal. The proposal says there are more than 100,000 barred owls in forests on the West Coast.
“They come into these areas. They reach high densities. They’re basically eating everything and competing with spotted owls for food,” said David Wiens, a supervisory research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
The USFWS’ proposed management plan calls for killing barred owls across about one-third of the spotted owl range in Washington, Oregon and California over three decades. The plan would remove the barred owl from 1%-2% of its current range.
Crews of trained shooters would broadcast an owl call, attracting those nearby. Then, equipped with spotlights and shotguns, they would kill the birds.
The USFWS funded an experimental study — which Wiens led — to see how well the strategy worked in five areas of Pacific Northwest forest over five years. The results, published in 2021, showed that some 2,485 barred owls were killed, and that spotted owls had a 10% better survival rate in areas where they were removed.
The removal stabilized the spotted owl population but did not substantially increase it. Brown said the agency thinks it would take longer than five years to see spotted owl populations turn around because the birds don’t reproduce very quickly.
Given barred owls’ dominance, it’s likely their populations would bounce back over time, which is why the USFWS would likely have to “perpetually manage the species,” Brown added.
Kessina Lee, the USFWS’ Oregon state supervisor, said wildlife biologists consulted an ethicist about killing the animals. Lethal removal is justified when the alternative is a species’ extinction, Lee said.
“Sometimes it’s necessary for humans to intervene to correct an unnatural situation,” she said.
Some animal rights groups disagree.
Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based animal advocacy nonprofit, unsuccessfully challenged the USFWS’ permit to conduct the 2021 study.
“We don’t think it’s ethical to be going out and calling for barred owls and shooting them with a shotgun because they are currently doing better in the existing environment and outcompeting other species,” said Jennifer Best, who directs the organization’s wildlife law program.
Best said species are perpetually adapting to different pressures and moving to new environments due to threats like climate change.
“How to approach that needs to be addressed and considered. Killing the species that are thriving is not a good solution,” she said.
Decades of work to protect spotted owls
Barred owls came to the Pacific Northwest forests at a time of upheaval.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, environmentalists and loggers were fighting over timber harvest in the old-growth forests that remained — a conflict known as the Timber Wars. The spotted owl, which prefers to live in the massive old-growth trees that were dwindling, was at the center of the pitched debate.
The fight ultimately led to protections for the bird and its habitat, as well as a plan to conserve old forests on federal lands. In 1990, the owl became a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Those measures helped — until barred owls began to take over.
Biologists think climate changes in Canada or human-caused changes in the Great Plains — like an increase in treed habitat as people eradicated the beavers and buffalo that hindered tree growth — helped enable barred owls to spread.
“Over about a 100-year period, they slowly moved across that area. Once they hit the West Coast and the forest there, they really began to explode,” Wiens said.
But Best views the barred owl as a scapegoat and thinks killing them is a distraction from taking bolder steps to conserve the spotted owls’ habitat.
“I think protecting old-growth forests in areas where spotted owls do live and can live is the most important thing — and working to restore habitat that has been destroyed. It’s not an easy or quick fix, but that’s the potential long-term solution,” Best said.
After the public comment period ends for the USFWS proposal, a final proposal is expected in the spring or summer.