Hostile takeover

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

  • Nothern spotted owl in Western Hemlock

    Patrick Kolar
  • Patrick Kolar

Page 3

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.

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