To save the spotted owl, U.S. officials plan to kill hundreds of thousands of another owl species

To save the endangered spotted owl from extinction, U.S. conservationists are embracing a controversial plan to deploy trained marksmen into dense West Coast forests to kill nearly half a million spotted owls that are crowding out their own kind.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s strategy released Wednesday aims to bolster declining spotted owl populations in Oregon, Washington state and California, The Associated Press obtained advance details.

Documents released by the agency show that about 450,000 barred owls were shot over the past three decades after the birds from the eastern U.S. invaded the West Coast territories of two owl species: the northern spotted owl and the California spotted owl. The smaller spotted owls could not compete with the invaders, which have large broods and need less space to survive than spotted owls.

Previous efforts to save spotted owls have focused on protecting the forests where they live, leading to bitter battles over logging but also helping to slow the birds’ decline. The proliferation of spotted owls in recent years is undermining that previous work, officials said.

“Without active management of the barred owl, northern spotted owls are likely to become extinct throughout all or most of their range, despite decades of concerted conservation efforts,” said Kessina Lee, Oregon State Supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The idea of ​​killing one species of bird to save another has divided wildlife advocates and conservationists. It is reminiscent of past government efforts to save West Coast salmon by killing sea lions and cormorants that hunt the fish, and to protect warblers by killing cowbirds that lay eggs in warblers’ nests.

Some advocates reluctantly accepted the tawny owl removal strategy, while others said it was a reckless distraction from much-needed forest conservation.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is going from being a protector of wildlife to a persecutor of wildlife,” said Wayne Pacelle, founder of the advocacy group Animal Wellness Action. He predicted the program would fail because the agency would no longer be able to stop barred owls from migrating into areas where others have been killed.

The shootings would likely begin next spring, officials said. The barred owls would be lured using bullhorns to broadcast recorded owl calls, then shot at with shotgun blasts. The carcasses would be buried on site.

The birds are already being killed by researchers in some spotted owl habitats, with about 4,500 birds removed since 2009, said Robin Bown, leader of the barred owl strategy for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those targeted include barred owls in California’s Sierra Nevada region, where the animals have only recently arrived and officials want to prevent populations from expanding.

In other areas where the tawny owl is more common, authorities are trying to reduce its numbers, but they acknowledge that shooting owls is unlikely to lead to complete eradication of the species.

Sponsors include the American Bird Conservancy and other conservation organizations.

Barred owls don’t belong in the West, said Steve Holmer, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy. Killing them is unfortunate, he added, but reducing their numbers could help them coexist with spotted owls in the long run.

“If the old forests are allowed to grow again, coexistence will hopefully be possible and we may not have to do as much,” says Holmer.

The killings would reduce the numbers of North American tawny owls by less than 1 percent per year, officials said, comparable to the potential extinction of the spotted owl if the problem is not addressed.

Because tawny owls are aggressive hunters, removing the species could also help other West Coast species they prey on, such as salamanders and crayfish, said Tom Wheeler, director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a California-based conservation organization.

Public hunting of owls would not be allowed. The Wildlife Service would designate government agencies, landowners, American Indian tribes or businesses to conduct the killings. Shooters would be required to provide documentation of training or experience in owl identification and firearms skills.

The publication in the coming days of a final environmental study on the proposal will open a 30-day comment period before a final decision is made.

The plan for the tawny owl follows decades of conflict between conservationists and logging companies, which have cut down large swaths of the old-growth forest where the spotted owl lives.

Early efforts to save the birds led to a logging ban in the 1990s, sparking unrest within the timber industry and its political supporters in Congress.

Yet spotted owl populations have continued to decline since barred owls first showed up on the West Coast decades ago. At least half of the region’s spotted owls have disappeared, with declines of 75 percent or more in some study areas, said Katherine Fitzgerald, who leads the Wildlife Service’s northern spotted owl recovery program.

Opponents say the mass culling of barred owls would cause serious disruption to forest ecosystems and could lead to the accidental shooting of other species, including the spotted owl. They have also challenged the notion that barred owls do not belong on the West Coast, characterizing their expanding range as a natural ecological phenomenon.

Researchers say the tawny owls migrated west via two routes: through the Great Plains, where settlers planted trees that gave them access to new areas, or through Canada’s boreal forests, which have become more hospitable due to rising temperatures caused by climate change.

Northern spotted owls are federally protected as an endangered species. Federal officials determined in 2020 that their continued decline warranted an upgrade to the more critical designation of threatened. But the Fish and Wildlife Service declined at the time, saying other species had priority.

Last year, California’s spotted owls were proposed for federal protection. A decision is pending.

Under former President Donald Trump, administration officials revoked habitat protections for spotted owls at the request of the timber industry. Those protections were reinstated under President Joe Biden after the Interior Department said Trump appointees relied on flawed science to justify weakening protections.

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