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Hostile takeover

Barred owls are driving threatened spotted owls out of their territory. Is it time to shoot them?

 

Eleven years ago, a biologist walking through Redwood National Park in Humboldt County, Calif., stumbled across the body of a northern spotted owl. Thin cuts the size and shape of talons sliced into its left side, puncturing the bird's lungs and heart. Whatever had eaten away the breast muscles had a delicate touch; there were no broken bones. The blood was still wet; the bird, neatly decapitated.

When the biologist came back several hours later, he heard hooting: "Who cooks for you. Who cooks for ya'll." Recorded barred owl calls brought a second round of hoots, and when the man mimicked a spotted owl, the barred owl flew in, speckled feathers still clinging to one of its feet.

Although the northern spotted owl made the cover of Time magazine, motivated environmentally minded college students to spend their summers hooting in old growth, inspired countless recipes for spotted owl stew, and sucked up more state and federal funds than any other threatened or endangered species, the bird is now in a steep, unanticipated tailspin.

And no one knows how to stop it.

In British Columbia, only 22 northern spotted owls remained in 2006. A few of those birds are being captured in the hopes of launching a breeding program and fending off extirpation. On the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, the spotted owl is declining by more than 4 percent annually. No owls were born there last year. Scientists blamed a cold and rainy spring, but still: Zero is a hard number to spin.

One of the most likely contributors to the bird's decline is a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest. The barred owl, which has been moving in from the East, is bigger than the spotted owl and more aggressive. And it has been thriving as the spotted owl falters, leading to speculation that it's gobbling up spotted owls' food and hogging their nest sites. Occasionally, the barred owl mates with the spotted to create "sparred owls." In at least one instance, a barred owl ate a spotted owl.

Even before he observed these altercations first hand, researcher Eric Forsman tracked the approach of the barred owl with a sense of dread.

The final Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan, released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in late May, calls for experiments in shooting barred owls to see if that might halt the spotted owl's decline. These studies would gauge the effect of the barred owls and pave the way for lethal control as a management tool. But the barred owl is a big, handsome bird, protected in its own right under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Some view its arrival as a non-native invasion caused by human activities, but others think it is merely a natural range expansion -- the kind of thing that will become more commonplace as the climate changes. Is killing one raptor to protect another a reasonable strategy? If not, what does the future hold for the northern spotted owl?

At Elkhorn Creek in early May, Oregon State University graduate student David Wiens hears the beeps of a radio-marked barred owl on his receiver. But he can't find the bird. He walks deeper into the forest, past flat-topped orange mushrooms and maples with still-crumpled leaves, along the length of a moss-covered log, until he's standing at the base of a large hemlock, antenna in hand, still unable to make out anything in the tangle of branches. Suddenly a barred owl heaves herself from the hemlock, flaps once or twice, and settles into a nearby tree.

For a moment, she's starkly visible, large and white and almost flashy in the green gloom. Her chest is marked by a cloud of speckles above long downward bands, like streaks of rain. Two round eyes and a hooked beak swim into view, then she vanishes again against the pale trunk.

Ten years ago, a barred owl was a rare sight in this part of Oregon; now, they outnumber spotted owls by almost three to one. Barred owls started inching toward the Pacific at the turn of the last century, perhaps making their way through forests that grew as humans suppressed fire, perhaps taking advantage of higher summer temperatures in altered habitat, perhaps using trees along creeks and rivers as pathways across the Plains. They marched through Canada and turned up in Washington and Oregon in the early 1970s. Now they inhabit the entire range of the northern spotted owl.

Spotted owls used to nest in a patch of old growth near Elkhorn Creek. No longer: A pair of barred owls has moved in. As a species, the barred owls like the damp and they've chosen a spot right by the stream where the female can catch crayfish to feed her fledglings.

Compared to spotted owls, barred owls have every advantage. They are as much as 15 percent bigger. Their young emerge earlier, and there are more of them: Barred owls average three owlets, while spotted owls usually hatch out only one or two. Wiens has radio-marked 10 barred owl females and 10 spotted owl females. Of these, all the barred owls are nesting, compared to only three or four of the spotted owls. Barred owls are not picky about what they eat, plucking up insects, frogs, shrews and moles, and they're not fussy about where they live, settling into suburbs as readily as remote wilderness. The spotted owl is much more dependent on rodents -- red tree voles, northern flying squirrels, and bushy-tailed wood rats. And it prefers old-growth forests, which are getting harder and harder to find.

To date, most of the evidence of barred owls bullying spotted owls is anecdotal. Wiens is trying to remedy that. For his dissertation, he's placing radio transmitters on about 50 birds -- 25 of each kind -- to track where they move, whether they compete for food and nest sites, and how they relate to one another. He's determined to unravel what exactly is going on in the treetops.

Know your owls?  Learn the differences between the spotted and barred owls and listen to their hoots

Wiens is tall, with reddish hair, a deep rumble of a voice and a high tolerance for controversy. Before coming to Oregon, he studied the northern goshawk in Arizona, subject of lawsuits, a denied ESA petition and much bitter wrangling. Because the goshawk was also linked to old growth, he kept track of research on the spotted owl. "Right around the time I finished up, I saw this opportunity, and I just jumped on it," Wiens says.

His base of operations is a field office near Eugene. A barred owl decoy sits on a table, a plastic bag over its head. Another stares down from the top of a bookcase. One wall is covered by a large map of the study area, a checkerboard of private land mostly owned by timber companies and public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Blue dots mark barred owl pairs; red dots denote spotted owl pairs. Blue and red pins indicate owls that are radio-marked with little backpacks with antennae that extend down their tails. Out back in the garage, hundreds of plastic baggies are hung up like laundry out to dry. Each contains a regurgitated owl pellet, packed with vole skulls and flying squirrel bones. The place smells of mice, which are used to draw the owls in.

Spotted owls are trusting and thus easy to radio-tag. "You hold a mouse out, and when they come to get it, you can just reach out to catch their legs," says Wiens. Barred owls are constitutionally cautious, another survival advantage. Researchers catch them by playing a barred owl call, and, when the owl barrels down to attack the intruder, scientists sweep it into a mist net and slip a backpack over its wings. When Wiens demonstrates how he plays a barred owl call through a megaphone, birds near the field site explode. A rooster crows, small birds burst from a nearby tree. A Cooper's hawk wheels overhead, crying, "Kek kek kek."

"Biologists in the field know without a doubt that the barred owls are having an effect on spotted owls. Maybe you don't know the mechanism--did the kill them? Did they drive them out? But it's clear they disappeared." -Lowell Diller, biologist

Surprisingly, some of the blue dots and red dots are very close, indicating that barred owls and spotted owls have set up housekeeping in the same neighborhood. In one case, two nests are little more than 400 yards apart. Wiens puts a finger next to the adjacent pins. "These are the sites we're most interested in," he says. "There's the most potential for interaction."

Early records of spotted owls highlight their similarity to barred owls. When John Xantus de Vesey, a Hungarian exile who took up natural history, reported the first spotted owl at Fort Tejon in California in 1857, he recognized it as a new species but gave it the name "California barred owl."

In 1872, Charles Bendire saw a bird he thought he knew at Whipple's Station, outside of Tucson, Ariz., and shot it. "On picking it up I supposed it to be a common Barred Owl, and only on my return to camp did I realize the prize I had secured," he wrote in his Life Histories of North American Birds. It was the second documented spotted owl. The egg was so similar to that of the barred owl, he     didn't include an illustration.

The birds themselves look alike, but aren't identical. In addition to its larger size, the barred owl has more white on the chest and head and has clear concentric rings around the eyes. The tail has thick bars of brown and white, and its contact call is the distinctive eight-note query. As the names indicate, the barred owl has vertical bars on its chest, while the spotted owl has small flecks all over. The spotted owl is darker with less-visible eye rings. Its contact call is four notes and, when excited, it barks like a dog.

The birds are not that closely related, according to George Barrowclough of the American Museum of Natural History, but they are in the same genus (Strix) and are able to interbreed. In the late '80s and early '90s, giant, ghostly owls appeared in Washington and Oregon. They had yellow-green beaks like spotted owls and tails with strong stripes like barred owls. Their chest feathers were a blend of both; their calls were like neither. Most often, these hybrids are the result of female barred owls pairing with male spotted owls. Some of them can produce young: A male hybrid and a female barred owl hatched two chicks in the Klamath Mountains in 1990. Overall, researchers have documented more than 50 of these mixtures. Even if the barred owls don't out-compete spotted owls, they may be diluting their gene pool.

Researchers tell stories of interactions that look a lot like competition, however. While evidence reported in the published literature is scarce, Lowell Diller, a biologist with Green Diamond Natural Resources, a timber company in Northern California, says the barred owls are definitely interfering with their cousins. "Biologists in the field know without a doubt that the barred owls are having an effect on spotted owls," he says. "Maybe you don't know the mechanism -- did they kill them? Did they drive them out? But it's clear they disappeared."

He adds, "We don't have any evidence that a spotted owl has managed to retain its territory when a barred owl shows up."

Wiens was tracking a pair of spotted owls getting ready to nest when he heard two barred owls nearby. They hooted again, night after night. Then he saw the male barred owl chasing the male spotted owl. "He was definitely fleeing," Wiens says. The male barred owl died and the spotted owls settled back in, but the next year another pair of barred owls showed up. "Within a week the spotted owls were displaced," Wiens recalls. "The spotted owls found a patch of forest -- a very small patch -- and they nested there."

Late one night, Eric Forsman, a spotted owl researcher and one of Wiens' advisors, was trying to tempt a spotted owl close so he could read its leg band. Both man and bird were focused on the bait, a mouse. "This barred owl just came zooming in and knocked it off its perch. Feathers were flying," Forsman says.

Even before he observed these altercations first hand, Forsman tracked the approach of the barred owl with a sense of dread. One night in June 1972, Forsman, then a graduate student, was walking a road by the main fork of McRae Creek in central Oregon, hooting for spotted owls. He heard an eight-note call from a scrap of old growth by a clear-cut. It was a familiar cry, but out of place. "The call continued for several minutes and then stopped. I still don't know if it was a Spotty or a person imitating the Barred Owl, but I suspect it was the former," he jotted in his field journal.

Thirty-six years later, in his office at the Pacific Northwest Forest Experiment Station of the USDA, Forsman reflects that even as he made those notes, he knew barred owls were moving in to the north. In British Columbia, signs had appeared in the 1940s -- telltale hoots at dusk, a feather on a spruce, a carcass by the highway. In the late 1960s, an injured barred owl was nursed back to health and set free in Glacier National Park. Another was shot near Spokane. But Forsman didn't publish his observation, which would have been the first record of the species in Oregon. He didn't let himself consider that it could actually have been a barred owl.

"I just wasn't psychologically ready," he says. "I think for a while some of us were hoping the range expansion would he limited to B.C."

Forsman has been studying spotted owls for decades, through their Endangered Species Act listing, through the Northwest Forest Plan, through protests and litigation. Lanky, with glasses, a brush of gray hair and a quick smile, Forsman looks ready to climb a Douglas fir to inventory owlets at a moment's notice.

When asked about the future of the northern spotted owl, though, he becomes sober, even resigned. He mentions that the southern end of the range is drier and perhaps less hospitable to the barred owls. Maybe they won't be as successful there.

"I'm hopeful that things will turn out better than they have further north, but I sure don't know what's going to happen at this point," Forsman says.

Out by Elkhorn Creek, Wiens can't locate the male of the barred owl pair. Robert Anthony, an OSU professor of wildlife ecology and one of his advisors, is along to observe his progress. Wiens drives to high ground to try again, pulling over by a hillside logged to stubble. It's a cliche to talk about the ugliness of clear-cuts, but when one looks over the wasteland of stumps and dry twigs surrounding the tiny islands of old growth, it's hard to believe the spotted owl's main problem is another owl.

Some view the barred owl's arrival as a non-native invasion caused by human activities, but others think it is merely a natural range expansion -- the kind of thing that will become more commonplace as the climate changes.

When the northern spotted owl was listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, the loss of old-growth forests from timber harvest was considered the primary cause. Between the start of the 19th century and 1990, the spotted owl lost 60-80 percent of its habitat, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates. Wildfires, more frequent now as result of climate change, are also consuming old growth, particularly in drier areas. These fires, combined with logging, reduced spotted owl habitat on federal lands another 5 percent between 1994 and 2003. There are other dangers, too. Sudden oak death, a disease recently discovered in California and southern Oregon, can infect the owl's favored trees, Douglas fir, grand fir, and coast redwoods, as well as oaks and tanoaks. West Nile virus is a concern, as is avian malaria, which was first reported in a spotted owl in late May.

Given this blizzard of threats, many are suspicious of the emphasis on the barred owl. The draft recovery plan, released last year, came back from Washington, D.C., edited to declare baldly that the barred owl was the primary cause of spotted owl decline. This seemed like a ploy to undersell the role of habitat loss and open more land to timber harvest, particularly as the draft stripped old-growth protection provided in the Northwest Forest Plan. The 1994 plan was designed to preserve old growth for species that relied on it, while providing for some timber harvest. The plan covered 24 million acres of federal land in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, and put 77 percent of that in reserves off-limits to logging. Ever since, timber companies have been lobbying to put some of those trees back in play.

Public meetings on the draft recovery plan revealed a core of people strongly opposed to shooting barred owls. The plan was variously described as "a red herring," "ethnic cleansing," "a public relations fiasco," and "one of the most ridiculous, silly proposals I have ever heard."

The final draft is milder, listing the barred owl as one factor along with habitat loss from logging and wildfire. It dropped an appendix on the "Barred Owl Removal Strategy," which laid out the details in plain terms: "Removal would be accomplished by luring territorial barred owls into close range ... using recorded calls and an owl decoy. ... A shotgun would be used to prevent wounding and ensure rapid and humane death." Like the draft, though, the final draft suggests an experiment in shooting barred owls to test the effectiveness of lethal control. The language has been rendered more palatable -- the terms "shotgun" and "death" don't appear -- but the essential recommendation is the same.

The question remains, though: Would killing barred owls work? The birds have had no problem finding their way to the West from the forests of Eastern North America where they originally lived. As soon as the shooting stops, they may just move back in. A large area would need to be patrolled for an indefinite length of time.

Only one study has been conducted to date on the techniques and results of barred owl removal, and researchers often describe it as a "pseudo-experiment" because it didn't have a control group. In 2006, Jack Dumbacher, an ornithologist at the California Academy of Sciences, received a permit to shoot barred owls in Northern California to test their DNA and discover how they were different than those in the East. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked if he would take them from traditional spotted owl nesting sites, so it could get a glimpse of what might happen if the barred owls disappeared.

Going out at night, playing recorded calls next to stuffed barred owls, Dumbacher and Diller relied on the owls' territorial nature to draw them in. They shot 20 barred owls from former spotted owl territories on the Klamath National Forest and on Green Diamond timber company land and took the specimens to the museum.

In some cases, the results were dramatic. One site near Poverty Creek had been reliable territory for spotted owls since the early 1990s but no spotted owls had nested there for several years. Sometimes, a spotted owl would hoot on the periphery, but nothing more. Ten days after the barred owls' removal, Diller came back. He thought it was early, but was eager to see what was happening.

"The spotted owls flew up to greet me," he says. He recognized their leg bands. "It was the same birds that had been there before the barred owls showed up."

Based on these preliminary tests, Diller thinks barred owl control could work. One person, well-versed in barred owl territories, could shoot two to four pairs a night, he estimates. Getting adults in the spring before they breed would keep populations low enough to give the spotted owl a chance.

As recommendations in the final recovery plan take hold, Diller anticipates working on a larger, more official version of his study. Plans are already afoot to protect the California spotted owl (which, like the Mexican spotted owl, is a distinct subspecies from the northern spotted owl) by keeping barred owls from moving farther south. Taking a page from invasion biology, which recommends removing non-native species before they become established, managers hope to shoot barred owls as soon as they are detected on national forest land. In areas already occupied, the purpose of control would not be to eliminate the barred owl, but simply to depress its numbers, according to Diller. "The goal is basically co-existence of these two species," he says. "Over time, you will have natural selection favoring a new spotted owl ... that can co-exist with barred owls." He speculates that the resulting bird would probably be smaller, to exploit niches unavailable to the larger barred owl. In south-central Mexico, the diminutive Mexican spotted owl coexists with a subspecies of barred owl that is larger than those moving in to the north.
Patience would be necessary. "For the next 200 years, you would probably have to do some sort of control," Diller says.

Those who study threatened and endangered species often speak with palpable loathing about the invasive critters eating their subjects. But not in the barred owl's case. There's just not a lot of eagerness to pick up the gun.

Anthony says he might support an experimental removal, but adds that he's discussed it with Forsman, and they both have reservations. "I guess we find shooting barred owls a bit distasteful," he says. "It's going to be hard for researchers to get permission and acceptance for a study like that."

Forsman agrees. "Unfortunately, my study areas are in the places where it would be most logical to do these kind of studies," he says. "I'm not looking forward to the controversy that would surround these studies. And I like owls. For me, it would be difficult to go out and shoot a barred owl." Forsman recalls another researcher, equally reluctant, telling him, "You know, Eric, we should really do this on your study site."

Even Diller, who sees some potential for killing barred owls as a management tool, had a hard time when Dumbacher pulled the trigger. He has spent 20 years detailing the habits of spotted owls. "You can't help but fall in love with them. And barred owls are just like them," Diller says. "I had to actually look away."

Sacrificing one animal for another is a long tradition in the United States, from the trapping of coyotes to the poisoning of ravens. In Alaska, wolves are shot to bulk up caribou numbers; in Utah, cougars are killed to protect non-native bighorn sheep. Historically, the government has generally culled predators to protect game species or livestock. It's only recently that agencies have begun trying to control one animal for the sake of another that is more endangered. But it's happening now with increasing frequency.

The day Wiens went out with Anthony, the Oregonian's headline read: "Sea lions apparently shot while in traps." For years, sea lions have been congregating in the Columbia River, chomping on spring chinook salmon as the fish linger in front of the fish ladders at the Bonneville dam. Sea lions also feast on winter steelhead returning to Lake Washington, and on other fish runs struggling to survive. Washington and Oregon sought permission to kill as many as 85 of the most troublesome sea lions, but were blocked in late April by a Humane Society of the United States lawsuit.

While waiting for a final court decision, the states rigged traps for the sea lions, preparing to ship the ones they caught to zoos and aquariums. Somehow, the trap was triggered unexpectedly, catching four California sea lions and two Steller sea lions, a species itself listed as "threatened." The first reports said the six sea lions had been assassinated. Then National Marine Fisheries Service investigators backtracked and said the trapped animals likely died of heat exhaustion when they couldn't escape into the water to cool down.

The quandary over what to do with the sea lions highlights the social and political ramifications of controlling one attractive native species to save another. Emotions have run high over the sea lions' fate, as well as that of the Caspian terns, which also gobble up Columbia river salmon, and of the golden eagles that once ate endangered Channel Island foxes. For days, the notion that someone with a grudge executed six sea lions seemed perfectly plausible.

The future of these animals -- the sea lions, the salmon and the owls -- depends largely on public opinion: the kind of biological future Americans envision for their country, and how much human interference they are willing to accept (or able to stomach). Flaunting its adaptability, the barred owl has colonized the city of Portland. One dropped into the Columbia River and was dredged out and picked up by a fishing boat. Another winged its way downtown and perched on the library sign. Dogs retrieve downy fledglings that have tumbled from the nest.

The barred owl has made itself at home. "It's not just a name and a picture in a book," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. "They're very visible, so a lot of people have a personal relationship with this owl."

Sallinger, who got his start with Audubon at its wildlife rehabilitation center, knows this better than anyone. The owl in the river was one of many brought to the center. "All my personal experience to date with barred owls has been fixing them and releasing them back to the wild," he says.

This makes the question of killing them all the more difficult. People call him all the time, concerned because they've read newspaper articles about plans to shoot barred owls. What can they do to stop it? Sallinger tells them, "It's your right to say,  'Don't kill barred owls' ... but by doing that you may be making a decision to allow another species to go extinct." He advises callers to enjoy the barred owls in their neighborhoods, areas that aren't spotted owl habitat.

For Sallinger, the issue of habitat is still foremost, and neither the draft nor the final recovery plan provides enough of it. The arrival of barred owls means spotted owls need more protected habitat, not less, he says. In fact, the fragmentation of the forest may have helped the barred owl gain a foothold. "I think it would be outrageous and unethical to even consider killing another species until the underlying causes have been addressed. And they haven't."

But despite what Sallinger sees as a "cynical" twisting of the barred owl's role in order to free up more land for logging, the Audubon Society of Portland may ultimately sign off on lethal control. If the right plan came along, one that had scientific underpinning and specific targets and timelines -- and didn't involve trading away protected old growth -- Sallinger might support it: "I just don't think we can be in the position of saying no way, no how.

"It's fraught with ethical and moral and scientific issues," he says. But, he adds, "we would err on the side of avoiding extinction."

When people talk about killing barred owls, the terms "ethical" and "ethics" come up over and over. William Lynn, a professor at Tufts University and assistant director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy, advocates using ethics to improve policy. This is a challenge, as most recovery plans are focused on a short-term, immediate response to a crisis and don't engage the larger issues that an ethical decision might require. Many of the scientists interviewed for this article dismissed the questions of why the barred owl came West, whether humans paved the way and how, whether the bird should be treated as an invasive species or simply part of a changing ecosystem. But Lynn believes these issues matter, because they point to the still-unknown cause of the conflict. The spotted owl's decline is "a symptom of a much larger problem, and the problem is how we relate to animals and how we consider their well-being," he says.

According to Lynn, controlling barred owls would only make sense in terms of some larger commitment to change land-use policies. He believes Americans need to make some decisions about how we should live with other animals. Otherwise, we'll just face another emergency, with a different species, tomorrow.

As he steers the Jeep from the clear-cut vista, off to find another owl, Wiens comments, "Spotted owls are still doing well in parts of their range, so it's too early to be writing an obituary."

He mentions Tyee, a big study area just south of this one. But Anthony, the author of big demographic studies of spotted owls that come out every five years, contradicts him from the backseat: "Over the last three years, their occupancy rates have declined 15 or 20 percent," he says. "These occupancy rates have just continued to decline for all the study areas in Washington and the northern study areas in Oregon." Tyee was holding steady in the last report, but Anthony is preparing another demographic study in 2009, and the forecast looks bleak.

Near Cedar Creek, Wiens and Anthony walk down an abandoned logging spur, littered with shotgun shells and tangled with horsetail and blackberry bushes, heading toward a known spotted owl nest. Then they veer from the road down a steep slope. Luxuriant ferns and Oregon grape with its thick serrated leaves surrounding yellow blooms cover the hillside. Tall old-growth trees filter the sun. In the green light of the undergrowth, it's almost as if they are diving underwater.

Wiens points out a large, ungainly Douglas fir covered with moss. One branch juts out at a right angle, and other branches grow straight up from it, like the beginnings of new trees.
"They've nested in this tree the past three years in a row. It's a good spot for them," Wiens says. A little further down the hill, the male spotted owl peers down from a high cluster of three spindly Douglas firs.

Unlike the fierce, iconic wolf and bald eagle, the spotted owl seems an improbable candidate for the limelight. With close-set black eyes and dotted feathers, he looks more like a nearsighted math professor in flecked tweed than a diva. Needles and lichen tendrils obscure his face as he looks down to watch Wiens scoop up pellets and tie a pink plastic ribbon around the trunk, marking it as a roost tree.
This is the rare spot with no barred owls within a mile, one of only two of Wiens' sites where that's the case. Great horned owls -- one of the barred owl's only predators -- live nearby. They can prey on spotted owls, too, but haven't bothered this pair yet. Last year, these spotted owls raised two fledglings, and the female is warming new eggs right now. The male flicks out a wing and draws it back in. It's spring, and the earth is scurrying with things to eat. For the moment, the forest is quiet.

Kim Todd writes from Missoula, Montana. She is the author of Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America.