Thousands of barred owls, the nemesis of the smaller northern spotted owl, would be shot in the Northwest under a plan the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Tuesday.
The agency may take deadly measures because the barred owl has joined the loss of mature forests as the biggest threats to the spotted owl, a species in decline despite two decades of federal protection.
By virtue of being a Northwest native, the spotted owl enjoys the protection of the Endangered Species Act. By contrast, the barred owl, an East Coast immigrant, is seen as the interloper and too big, aggressive and numerous to coexist with the spotted owl.
“I don’t hate barred owls. They’re neat animals. They just don’t belong here,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Bown, who led a team of researchers who developed the proposal.
Fish and Wildlife may make a final decision as soon as next month whether to shoot or capture an estimated 3,603 barred owls in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
The agency, which has studied removal of barred owls since 2009, has identified four places to conduct the experiment. Two of the areas include portions of northwest Douglas County and the Canyonville area.
The agency would try to eliminate barred owls from each area as quickly as possible and then see what happens.
Fish and Wildlife scientists estimate they will need at least four years to know whether barred owls stay away and spotted owls return. The findings of the $2.9 million experiment could guide longer-range management plans.
“We need to know if this tool will work before we kill a lot of barred owls,” Bown said.
Barred owls could be targeted as soon as this fall, though the program probably wouldn’t be fully under way until fall 2014, Bown said.
In an environmental assessment issued Tuesday, Fish and Wildlife notes that timber harvests could be reduced if the experiment works and spotted owls reoccupy trees.
Douglas Timber Operators Executive Director Bob Ragon said he doubts that will happen. Barred owls will continue to overwhelm spotted owls by their natural advantages, he predicted.
“I think it’s a futile effort,” he said. “It’s so insane it’s hard to comprehend.
“It’s just going to prolong the agony,” Ragon said. “It’s another indication of the Endangered Species Act being taken to ridiculous extremes.”
Shooting barred owls, tested on a small scale in Northern California, also has drawn criticism and skepticism from conservation groups, particularly bird preservation groups.
Umpqua Valley Audubon Society President Diana Wales said she remains ambivalent about shooting barred owls.
“I’ve been laboring with this ever since it was proposed,” she said. “The meek does not inherit the Earth, at least not in the owl world.”
She said shooting barred owls won’t address the spotted owl’s struggle to survive with less habitat. “It’s an oversimplified solution to a complex problem,” Wales said.
“If they do it, I hope it works. I don’t quite see how it can work,” she said. “Why won’t barred owls just move in from elsewhere?”
Bown said that may happen. But since humans are culpable for the barred owl invasion, they should attempt to correct it, she said.
“I feel we need to try something at least,” Bown said. “To do nothing seems like a cheap way out.”
Unlike the pesky and despised starlings, which were brought from Europe and unwisely released by humans, barred owls made their own way from the East. Landscape changes caused by settlers may have allowed barred owls to cross the Northern Great Plans to reach the West.
Barred owls were first seen in spotted owl habitat in Canada in 1959. In the decades since, barred owls have been moving down the West Coast and can now be found throughout the spotted owl’s range. The longer barred owls are in a forest, the fewer spotted owls there are, according to Fish and Wildlife.
The barred owl’s arrival came as the spotted owl was weakened by loss of habitat, Bown said.
“The spotted owl already had one wing tied behind its back when the barred owl got here,” she said.
In its report, Fish and Wildlife says it hopes to capture some barred owls and release them to zoos or animal parks. The demand, however, for barred owls is apparently low. A preliminary inquiry by the agency found three places willing to accept a total of five barred owls.
Bown said the agency plans to continue looking for places to take barred owls, but said she doubts homes could be found for more than a hundred.
The report details how the killing would take place — with a shotgun fired from no farther away than 30 yards to ensure the bird isn’t merely wounded and no closer than 20 yards so the carcass can be intact for scientific study.
Fish and Wildlife selected the four test areas to experiment throughout the spotted owl’s range.
In Oregon, barred owls would be shot to the north and south of Roseburg.
An estimated 1,263 barred owls would be removed from 193,500 acres in the Oregon Coast Range. The mix of private and Bureau of Land Management forests are in Douglas, Lane and Benton counties.
Some 1,430 barred owls would be taken from 227,600 acres in southwest Oregon, including on both sides of Interstate 5 in the Canyonville area. The Forest Service and BLM manages about half the land.
In Washington, approximately 634 barred owls would be removed from 220,400 acres, mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service, in Kittitas County east of Seattle.
In California, approximately 276 owls would be targeted over 90,800 acres, mostly owned by the Hoopa Valley Tribe.
The study areas represent 1.72 percent of the spotted owl’s range, according to Fish and Wildlife.
• City Editor Don Jenkins can be reached at 541-957-4201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.