When an owl species goes silent

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Spotted Owl: Photograph courtesy of USFWS

By Rebecca Deatsman

Is it ethical to kill one native species to save another? What if one is common and widespread and the other is endangered? This is the dilemma faced in recent years by wildlife managers in the Pacific Northwest as they continue the struggle to save the Spotted Owl.

First placed on the endangered species list in 1990, the Spotted Owl has become infamous as a symbol of the ongoing conflicts between environmentalists and loggers in the Northwest. Spotted Owls need undisturbed old-growth forests to thrive, but those same forests also contain valuable timber that helps support loggers, their families, and entire communities. However, habitat loss isn’t the only serious threat that the Spotted Owl is facing, and some people may be surprised by the source of its newest challenge: another owl.

Barred Owls are originally native to eastern North America, but have been gradually expanding their range west over the last century, likely due to how humans have altered habitats in the once-treeless Great Plains; they were first documented in California in the 1950s and in western Washington in the 1970s and have been increasing ever since. Barred and Spotted Owls are close cousins, both in the genus Strix, and look very similar, with dark eyes and without the distinctive “ear” tufts sported by many other owls; however, Barred Owls have horizontal and vertical barring on their breasts and bellies while Spotted Owls are more, well, spotted. (See photos.) Barred Owls are also larger, more aggressive, and can use a wider range of habitats – and when they move into Spotted Owl forests, they can easily outcompete their shy western cousins. When big, boisterous Barred Owls move into an area, Spotted Owls learn to be quiet in order to avoid them. Since owls rely on vocalizations to find mates and defend territory, an owl population that goes quiet doesn’t last for long.

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Barred Owl: Photograph courtesy of Oregon Fish and Wildlife

Trapping Barred Owls alive and moving them to a new location away from Spotted Owl habitat is difficult and costly; the only real option for eliminating them is killing them. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized a pilot project to kill eighty Barred Owls in Spotted Owl habitat in California and study the results. The experiment was a success, with Spotted Owls rapidly recolonizing sites where their competitors had been removed, and based on these results the USFWS is greatly expanding the program – last September, they announced a plan to kill 3600 Barred Owls in California, Oregon, and Washington over the next four years. The Canadian government has reached the same conclusion and last year okayed the killing of 40 Barred Owls in British Columbia, where as few as ten Spotted Owls remain in the wild.

These decisions are not without controversy. Native birds of prey, including the Barred Owl, are protected in both the U.S. and Canada under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, making it illegal under most circumstances to capture or kill them; the USFWS had to issue special exemptions to allow the cull to go forward. In the U.S., a group called Friends of Animals is suing the USFWS to stop the cull, saying the plan is “immoral, unethical and cruel, as well as illegal.” An online petition petition against the shooting of Barred Owls in British Columbia garnered over 15,000 signatures. Many people are uncomfortable with the government-sponsored killing of native, non-game wildlife, even with the best of intentions. Still, the cull is going forward, having begun in America near the end of last year.

It’s hard to argue with a simple, cost-effective measure that may be able to help bring a declining species like the Spotted Owl back from the brink, but it’s also understandably hard for some wildlife lovers to stomach. In this case, the owls in the old growth may be our canary in the coal mine.

As habitats across the continent continue to be altered by climate change, this is probably not the last time that two species, both considered native, will come into conflict and force wildlife management agencies to make tough decisions. In addition to reshaping our climate, the decades to come may reshape the very definition of “native,” and our concept of wildlife ethics along with it.  For now, the Spotted Owl and its habitat remain safe.

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