Who gives a hoot? FWS considers experimental removal of barred owls

Posted: Sep 19, 2018


The sound is familiar to many who have been to the eastern half of the country.  Off in the distance, on those muggy summer nights, you swear you could hear a hoot owl ask, “who-cooks-for-you?” Searching for the answer, you find an owl staring down at you from a gnarled snag with its big brown eyes that stop you in your tracks.  You enjoy the moment until its massive wings start flapping silently through the moonlit sky.  Catching a glimpse of this magnificent bird of prey is something you brag to your friends about with eyes as wide as the owls.  Certainly this beautiful bird belongs in our forests and should be respected.  Well, that depends on where you are.

The barred owl, commonly known as the hoot owl, is a native bird typically found east of the Mississippi.  First thought to reside exclusively in mature forests, barred owls have been found to thrive in a variety of habitats.  Although the reason for the raptors population increase is debatable, the barred owl has flourished as flat rural land has been transformed into suburban neighborhoods, complete with a few tall trees in every yard.  The bird has adapted well to this change.  Some would say too well.

Behind a changing landscape, the barred owl crept into western Canada, reaching British Columbia in 1959.  By the 1970’s it had moved as far south as the Sierras in California.  The barred owls expanding range has created problems for another species, the northern spotted owl.

The spotted owl has not adapted as well to vanishing old-growth forests.  It is smaller, more reclusive, and requires about five times more space than the barred owl.  The spotted owl is also a picky eater, relying solely on small mammals, such as flying squirrels and woodrats.  Barred owls will eat anything they can get their talons on. 

Spotted owl populations have been in decline since deforestation in the Pacific Northwest began.  The owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, with habitat loss identified as the central concern.  After initial studies suggested a negative impact on the population of spotted owls by the presence of the barred owl, the recovery plan was updated in 2008 to include competition from barred owls as a main threat to the continued existence of the spotted owl.

In response to this new threat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (“FWS”) announced plans to conduct an experimental removal of barred owls to determine the breadth of their impact on the spotted owl.  All of the plans considered by the FWS include lethal means of removal by flushing out the birds with animal sounds and shooting them.  Spotted owl populations will be monitored for signs of an increase in sites where the barred owl has been removed.  If successful, the experiments will help inform whether future large-scale removal plans would be feasible.

Wait a minute; the FWS is going to shoot the majestic hoot owl?  Doesn’t this seem a little odd? Sure the barred owl has expanded its range, but it is native to the U.S.  It wasn’t brought here from Europe.  This seems more like natural selection at work.  The barred owl has adapted to survive in a variety of habitats and the spotted owl hasn’t.  Should we shoot a bird for being too successful?

Proponents of the plan believe that without the impact humans have had on the environment, the barred owl would never have reached the northwest.  They argue that its invasive range must be reversed to make up for past mistakes.  Small scale removal efforts in British Columbia have seen spotted owls return to historically occupied sites.  With estimates as high as a 50% decrease in the spotted owl population in the last 25 years, removal efforts must be started right away to ensure the spotted owl does not disappear.

Opponents of the plan are skeptical of the positive effects that a removal program would produce.  Some evidence suggests that the two owls could successfully co-exist.  Even if successful, they suggest the plan would be never-ending.  The barred owl population explosion will make a retreat by the species unlikely.  With conservative estimates of a million dollars a year from now until the apocalypse, this seems like a waste of resources to save a species of owl that still may not survive because of habitat degradation.

Animal activists are torn between a desire to save the spotted owl and the ghastly thought of thousands upon thousands of barred owl carcasses.  What is a good environmentalist to do?  To further complicate things, there have been instances of interbreeding between the two species, producing offspring called sparred owls.  Some call this a monstrosity, others call it evolution. 

For me, the extinction of the spotted owl doesn’t pull on my heart strings more than the dead barred owls.  With the introduction of another large raptor into the ecosystem, the impact of losing this species may not prove to be more than aesthetic.  The Endangered Species Act has good intentions, but I am afraid that we have a frozen view of the natural world and an impulse to keep the forest exactly the way it was in 1973.  This seems like more human meddling in natural processes.  Haven’t we learned from our previous mistakes?  The emphasis should be on habitat protection, not removing a successful bird of prey without fully understanding the impact of such a plan.

However, I pause thinking of the possible consequences of allowing the spotted owl to disappear before opposing the removal plan.  The spotted owl was a driving force behind the passage of the Northwest Forest Plan, which set aside over 24 million acres of federal land for threatened species and closed 88% of that land to timber harvesting. 

The timber industry has claimed that the spotted owl’s status has caused 168,000 jobs to be lost.  The industry has petitioned and sued to remove the spotted owl from the threatened list, but so far these efforts have failed.  What would happen to the Northwest Forest Plan without its mascot, the northern spotted owl?

The danger of tying forest protection to a particular species is that future preservation efforts depend solely on the continued existence of that one animal.  The timber industry is surely licking its chops and readying its axes.  If the removal plan demonstrates that barred owls are a substantial threat to spotted owls, loggers will argue that the barred owls are to blame for the decline in spotted owls and protected lands should be opened for timber harvesting.  Skeptics have even suggested the removal plan is a ruse to draw attention away from land protection.  If the plan doesn’t move forward and the spotted owl does become extinct, loggers will be ready to step in.

A decrease in species populations often suggests wider issues of habitat loss and degradation.  Our public lands should be protected as a safe haven for all animals, not just the spotted owl.  Continued deforestation may have broader implications beyond the currently listed threatened species.  But until a holistic forest management plan is implemented, the fate of the spotted owl is an issue of concern because of the larger consequences attached to its survival. 

No matter what feelings you express about the experimental barred owl removal program, let the FWS know that our old-growth forests should stay protected.  The FWS is currently accepting comments on the owl removal plans through June 6.

Learn more about the alternatives for this plan and leave a comment for the FWS.

~Brian O'Neill

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