Wildlife Officials Consider Controversial Plan to Save Spotted Owls

A contentious plan to eliminate barred owls to save their threatened spotted owl cousins divides conservationists in the US.

Published July 05, 2024 - 00:07am

4 minutes read
United States
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US Fish and Wildlife Service officials are poised to undertake a controversial plan to save the imperiled northern and California spotted owls. The strategy involves the deployment of trained shooters into West Coast forests to eliminate nearly half a million barred owls, which have aggressively encroached upon the territories of the smaller spotted owls, leading to a dire competition for food and habitat.

The barred owls, originally from the eastern United States, have been pushing into the habitats of the spotted owls over the past few decades. This invasive species is larger and more dominant, posing significant threats to the already declining populations of the spotted owls. Past conservation efforts that focused on forest protection have been undermined by the barred owl's proliferation.

We are at a crossroads. We have the science that indicates what we need to do to conserve the spotted owls, and that requires that we take action on the barred owls, said Bridget Moran, a deputy state supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon. This perspective is echoed by Kessina Lee, Fish and Wildlife Service Oregon state supervisor, who stated, Without actively managing barred owls, northern spotted owls will likely go extinct in all or the majority of their range, despite decades of collaborative conservation efforts.

The plan, projected to span over three decades, aims to kill up to 470,000 barred owls -- less than one-half of 1% of their current North American population annually. Officials argue that this drastic measure is necessary to prevent the extinction of the federally listed northern spotted owl and to support the recovery of the California spotted owl, which is also under threat.

However, this approach has ignited a heated debate among wildlife advocates and conservationists. Some, like Wayne Pacelle of Animal Wellness Action, condemn the plan, arguing that the Fish and Wildlife Service is turning from protector of wildlife to persecutor of wildlife, and questioning the feasibility of preventing barred owls from re-entering areas where they are culled. Opponents also warn about potential severe disruptions to forest ecosystems and accidental shootings of other species, including the targeted spotted owls.

Barred owls have already been targeted in spotted owl habitats for research purposes, with around 4,500 removed since 2009. These efforts have mainly focused on the Sierra Nevada region in California to stop the establishment of barred owl populations. Moving forward, the plan intends to involve designated government agencies, landowners, Native American tribes, and trained professionals to carry out the shootings. Public hunting will not be permitted, and strict criteria for owl identification training and firearm skills will be enforced.

This plan is a continuation of longstanding conflicts between conservationists and the timber industry. In the 1990s, logging bans were implemented to protect the older forests where spotted owls reside, causing significant political and economic ramifications. Despite these efforts, the spotted owl populations have continued to decline, fueled by the arrival of barred owls on the West Coast.

Proponents of the plan, including the American Bird Conservancy and other conservation groups, advocate for barred owl removal as a necessary measure. Our organizations stand in full support of barred owl removal as a necessary measure, together with increased habitat protections for all remaining mature and old-growth forests, these groups stated in comments on a draft proposal released last year.

Federal authorities have recognized the northern spotted owl as a threatened species, with some calling for an upgrade to the endangered status due to their continued decline. Meanwhile, a proposal for federal protections for the California spotted owl remains pending. Efforts to restore habitat protections for these species have also seen political challenges, notably during the transition from the Trump to the Biden administration.

As the federal wildlife managers move closer to implementing this plan, the debate over its ethics and practicality continues. Supporters emphasize the urgency and necessity of bold action to save the spotted owls, while critics caution about the potential ecological consequences and the inherent complexity of intervening in natural processes.

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