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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Feds draw up final plan to kill hundreds of thousands of barred owls in PNW

A barred owl sits on downed tree roots in the Washington Park Arboretum.  (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
By Lynda V. Mapes Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It is time, federal wildlife managers have decided, to kill invasive barred owls in the Pacific Northwest that threaten native spotted owls with extinction.

The barred owl, ransacking forests and pushing deeper into fragile habitats, is outcompeting the spotted owl. It’s bigger, more aggressive, and eats anything in the spotted owl’s territory. Wildlife managers see no choice but to reduce the number of barred owls in some areas, to create refuges where spotted owls may persist.

The control program, outlined in a final Environmental Impact Statement announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday, is intended to result in the annual removal of less than one-half of 1% of the current North American barred owl population – but it’s still a lot of birds: as many as 500,000 barred owls, over the next 30 years, depending on how fully the program is implemented.

The policy is the result of more than 15 years of review and study and collaboration, said Bridget Moran, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office deputy state supervisor.

“We are at a crossroads. We now have the science. … There is time for us to act now, but that window is closing,” Moran said.

“We are wildlife biologists, we don’t take this on lightly. We do so because we know the Endangered Species Act requires us to do everything possible to protect endangered species, and we are doing that.”

Under the program, trained professionals would be deployed in about half of the areas where spotted owls and invasive barred owls are found in the northern spotted owl’s range, and also deployed to limit the barred owl’s invasion into California. Hunting by the general public would not be allowed. Shooters are to call barred owls into close range to confirm the species’ identity, and kill them with a shotgun. Lead shot will not be used.

To implement the program, USFWS must first obtain a permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The agency could then designate interested tribes, federal and state agencies, or landowners to shoot the owls. The “removal specialists,” as the agency calls them, would have to meet training and competency requirements set by the agency and monitor and report results.

The USFWS conducted a scoping and public comment process on its draft environmental impact statement last winter and will announce a final record of the decision in at least 30 days after the formal publication of the final statement in the Federal Register on Friday. The plan is essentially unchanged from the draft statement, which attracted more than 8,600 public comments.

Bob Sallinger, executive director of Bird Conservation Oregon, said while his organization supports fighting extinction of any species and believes the science is there to support some removal of barred owls, the plan is “fatally flawed.”

“We think this plan will result in a tremendous number of dead barred owls but likely won’t save the spotted owl,” Sallinger said. “The rigor in terms of the training, the requirements, the oversight and accountability isn’t there and if just a fraction of the birds shot turn out to be spotted owls, the outcome would be devastating. Our recommendation was they really needed to go back and rethink this with something much more targeted and sustainable.”

Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands, wrote Deb Haaland, Department of Interior secretary, last month, expressing concerns about the scope of the program – proposed on 14 million acres, it’s the largest raptor-killing plan, and without precedent in any wildlife control program, she noted.

Others saw no choice.

Claire Catania, executive director of Birds Connect Seattle (formerly Seattle Audubon) had to take a deep breath before talking about the program, which the organization supports, with caveats. “This is not something we are celebrating. It is a necessity, and a terrible necessity,” Catania said. “It is so unfortunate that this is where we are … if there were any other paths forward for us to consider, you better believe we would be at the front of the line advocating for it, but it is just not there.”

Catania predicted conservationists will be facing more such moments. “These types of scenarios are unfortunately going to be facing us more and more as we head deeper into the climate crises, and we are going to be faced with bad choices,” Catania said. “We can’t just stand up for endangered species when it is palatable to do so.”

In Washington, areas the agency has mapped where barred owl removal could potentially take place include the entire Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest, state lands adjacent to them, and the Yakama reservation. The soonest any large-scale implementation of the program is likely to begin is next spring.

A generalist predator, the barred owl is not only a threat to the spotted owl, but to Northwest ecosystems more broadly, noted Robin Bown, barred owl strategy lead for the USFWS. The barred owl is a devastating new predator to animals naive to their threat, from salamanders in Oregon to crayfish in California, with both species at risk, Bown said.

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 home to its primary prey – small mammals that thrive in the complex, unique environment of old-growth forests – including flying squirrels and tree voles.

But the owl, 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 crushing invasive competitor.

Barred owls were first documented in British Columbia in 1959 and in Washington, Oregon and California in the 1970s. There are now more than 100,000 barred owls in the northern spotted owl’s territory in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, according to USFWS.

Katherine Fitzgerald, northern spotted owl recovery lead for USFWS, said after watching the northern spotted owl decline for so many years, “There is some momentum to get them some help. … Absolutely we don’t see it lightly, but I am looking forward to seeing some efforts on the ground. I would like to see those declines slowed and reversed.”