Feds Propose Shooting One Owl to Save Another in Pacific Northwest

(Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

(The Seattle Times/TNS) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to enlist shooters to kill more than 500,000 barred owls over the next 30 years in the Pacific Northwest to preserve habitat for northern spotted owls, a protected species.

Barred owls are native to the East Coast but since the 1950s have been expanding their range in the Northwest. They are relentless predators who eat anything that moves. They will yank worms from the ground and salamanders out from under rocks. They’ll nail birds on the wing and anything in the water, from fish to snails to crayfish and frogs. Even slugs are on the menu.

They are also bigger, more aggressive and more territorial than the northern spotted owl, posing a threat to their survival as a species, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Now the federal government is detailing a rescue plan.

The goal of a draft environmental impact statement for the agency’s barred owl reduction program is to take out the owls in the northern spotted owl’s range in Washington and Oregon and to focus on heading off expansion of the barred owl into the range of the California spotted owl.

Assuming complete implementation of the proposal, an initial cull of about 20,000 barred owls would occur in the first year. Then, an annual reduction of 13,397 birds a year in the first decade of the program; 16,303 a year in the second decade and 17,390 birds each year in the third decade, in parts of Washington, Oregon and California — 11 to 14 million acres in all.

The weapon of choice would be a large-bore shotgun and night scopes as needed for work in darkness or low light. When gunfire is too dangerous near people, capture and euthanasia would be substituted.

Any landowner or land manager may ask the agency to let them remove the owls under the agency’s protocol, training specifications and permit.

The removal season is recommended during late spring through midsummer and fall. Shooters are directed to lure the owls with a recording of another owl’s call. When a barred owl comes within 30 yards and is stationary, they would shoot to kill.

There is not much time left for the northern spotted owl, the agency concluded. Populations in study areas throughout the owl’s range have declined from 35% to more than 80% over the past two decades. California spotted owls, which the service proposed for endangered species listing earlier this year, face a similar risk from barred owl competition as it expands southward.

“Everywhere the spotted owl can live and thrive, barred owls can thrive and do even better,” said Katherine Fitzgerald, northern spotted owl recovery lead for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based in Portland. “They are still invading, and they are not done.”

Much has been done to try to rescue the northern spotted owl, the poster animal of the campaign to save the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990. Then, in 1994, a federal judge approved the Northwest Forest Plan, devised under the Clinton administration, to set aside some 24 million acres of old-growth forests on federal land. The multispecies protection plan was intended to preserve habitat for the spotted owl on federal lands in the places scientists deemed most important for its survival, from Washington to California.

The owl depends on old-growth forests where its primary prey — small mammals that thrive in the complex, unique environment of old growth forests — include flying squirrels and tree voles.

But the owl, already greatly reduced in numbers by logging before the Northwest Forest Plan, faces continued habitat loss from wildfire and logging on unprotected lands. And now, it is mortally threatened by a devastating, invading competitor.

Barred owls were first documented in British Columbia in 1959 and in Washington, Oregon and California in the 1970s. Today, there are well over 100,000 barred owls in the northern spotted owl’s territory in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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