A large owl from the eastern United States might pay for its intrusion into the West Coast if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has its way.
The service is considering an experiment in which it would kill or transfer some barred owls – sometimes referred to as the hoot owl, thanks to its call – as part of a plan to preserve the smaller northern spotted owl, the agency said in a report this week.
The U.S. government has listed the northern spotted owl, whose range includes British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California, as a threatened species since 1990. Its population declined by 40% in the last 25 years, not only because of shrinking habitat, but also because the barred owl moved into the area starting in the late 1950s, the service says.
“Larger, more aggressive and more adaptable than the northern spotted owl, barred owls are known to displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting and compete with them for food,” the service says on the Interior Department’s website. "Researchers have also observed instances of barred owls interbreeding with or killing spotted owls."
The service is now proposing killing or capturing barred owls in limited areas of the other owl’s range to see whether the removals allow the other owl’s population to bounce back.
The service is calling for one to 11 experiment sites in areas including national parks and recreation areas. Depending on the number of sites, the service would kill or transfer 257 to nearly 8,960 barred owls, according to the service’s environmental impact statement on the plan.
The larger figure represents 0.2% percent of the barred owl’s North American population, and 6.5% of its population in the northern spotted owl’s range, according to the service.
Killing the barred owls would involve attracting them with recorded calls and shooting those that respond. Capturing them alive would involve calling them and then collecting them with nets or other trapping devices, the service says.
Captured owls would be released elsewhere or live out their lives in captivity. The service has yet to determine what lethal/nonlethal mix to use.
“We can’t ignore the mounting evidence that competition from barred owls is a major factor in the spotted owl’s decline, and we have a clear obligation to do all we can to prevent the spotted owl’s extinction and help it rebound,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said Tuesday in a news release.
If the experiment goes forward and works, the service would propose a wider-scale barred owl removal program in the northern spotted owl’s range, with the ultimate goal of getting the populations to the point where they can co-exist.
The Seattle Audubon Society was among the groups that consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service before the service made its proposal. Shawn Cantrell, the Seattle society's executive director, said he has yet to read all of the service's roughly 400-page environmental impact statement, but would generally be in favor of a small-scale removal experiment, provided that it be designed to answer questions like: How many would you have to remove to help the spotted owl, and for how long, and in how many locations? And how soon would barred owls return to those areas?
"The barred owl has grown as a challenge in the last decade, so we need to figure out what is the level of challenge that the barred owl poses, and what are the appropriate actions we might take concurrent with other things, such as restoring the habitat of the northern spotted owls," Cantrell said on Wednesday.
He said he wouldn't be in favor of a larger removal program, at least not until an experiment answered those questions. He also said he believes loss of the northern spotted owls' habitat through logging is a bigger reason the species isn't faring well.
"You can't use the barred owl as a scapegoat," Cantrell said, adding that the Seattle Audubon Society would comment further on the experiment plan once the group reads the whole environmental impact statement.
Both the experiment and the wider program would require separate public review processes. The service is accepting public comment on the experiment plan for 90 days, and a decision is expected later this year.
If the experiment happens, it could start next year and last for three to 10 years, the service says.
The barred owl is in the “least concern” category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' Red List of Threatened Species.
Separately, the Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday proposed new rules and maps for “critical habitat” areas for the northern spotted owl. The proposal, which identifies 10 million acres where protection rules would apply on federal land or nonfederal land that gets federal funding or permitting, will be subject to public review before a final decision in November.