Feds say they compete with endangered northern spotted owls
PORTLAND, Oregon––Barred owls are on the federal hit list at 100 West Coast locations, from San Francisco Bay to the Canadian border, because conservationists more than 30 years ago opted to make the northern spotted owl the poster bird for forest conservation.
Officially, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is finalizing plans to kill more than 3,600 barred owls, at estimated cost of $3.5 million, because these slightly larger cousins of northern spotted owls are taking habitat from the endangered spotted owls.
Already, at least 125 barred owls have been shotgunned in tests of the method, mostly on the Hoopa Reservation in California. Earlier, 106 barred owls were killed between 2009 and 2014 in timberlands owned by Green Diamond Resource Company, near Eureka, California.
Both the Hoopa Reservation and Green Diamond exercises, and the owl killing yet to come, are billed as tests of the hypothesis that the northern spotted owl population might recover enough to be removed from the endangered species list if not competing for prey and habitat with barred owls.
Ecological reality is that northern spotted owls preferentially inhabit old growth forests, though they can live elsewhere. But old growth forests are now relatively scarce along the West Coast.
Barred owls by contrast thrive in almost any forest habitat.
Anxiety about a ratio
“Barred owls are bigger, more aggressive and less picky about food than spotted owls. They also need less territory. They started working their way from the East across the Great Plains in the early 1900s, and by 1959 were in British Columbia,” explains longtime Associated Press forestry writer Jeff Barnard. “Barred owls now cover the spotted owl’s entire range,” Barnard recently summarized, “in some places outnumbering them as much as 5-to-1.”
The five-to-one ratio of one wild predator to another would normally not be of ecological concern. Coyotes, for example, who are like spotted owls highly adaptable “generalist” predators, often outnumber more specialized predators such as red and grey foxes, mink, otter, lynx, and bobcat by five-to-one or more, even in habitat where all are thriving.
But for nearly three decades now, no one in government and no one in conservation advocacy has dared to allow northern spotted owl populations to decline without taking dramatic action in response––even when the decline is proportional to habitat change.
Never a keystone species in the ecological sense of the term, because they were never especially abundant, northern spotted owls became an “umbrella” species for dozens of other species preferring old growth habitat as result of a strategic decision by conservationists early in the tenure of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagans to use the Endangered Species Act to counter aggressive moves by the White House to expand logging and log exports.
The range of the northern spotted owl mostly coincided with the regions where mechanized clear-cutting was rapidly transforming forest habitat. Other species were considered for the “umbrella” role, including salmon, whose spawning habitat was jeopardized by runoff from clear-cut slopes, but conservation donors responded most positively to direct mail appeals featuring adult northern spotted owls with their fluffy young.
Winning Endangered Species Act protection for northern spotted owls in 1990, after a decade of litigation and lobbying, conservation groups swiftly invoked the need to protect northern spotted owl habitat in lawsuits meant to stop logging in ecologically sensitive regions throughout the Pacific Northwest. Eventually 18.5 million acres became designated critical habitat for northern spotted owls.
Owls vs. jobs
Along the way, spotted owl habitat protection also came to be blamed for job losses in the logging industry which, in truth, resulted from a combination of increased mechanization of logging with running out of mature trees in the most accessible U.S. National Forests.
Now barred owls are blamed for continued losses of spotted owls––which means, in effect, that barred owls are blamed for the failure of the West Coast logging industry to recover from the excesses of the 1980s.
“In one study area on the eastern slope of Washington’s Cascade Mountains, for example, the spotted owl population fell from 120 birds in 1992 to just 18 last year,” wrote Sarah Deweerdt of Newsweek in May 2015.
“Both species are strongly territorial,” Deweerdt continued, “and neither will tolerate the other. While barred owls can get by in suburbs and even city parks, their favorite habitat for roosting, nesting and foraging is the same as that of spotted owls: old-growth forest. Barred owls are a very adaptable species. Compared with spotted owls, they can make a living in a much smaller home range and reach higher densities in a given area. This means a spotted owl pair may have to defend its territory not from one barred owl pair but four or five. And since barred owls are larger than spotted owls, they’re likely to win any direct territorial disputes, which, while usually not fatal, are violent: a feathery midair body slam.”
“This is unfortunately a classic no-win situation,” Portland Audubon Society conservation director Bob Sallinger told Deweerdt. “The idea of killing thousands and thousands of these beautiful birds is unacceptable to many, many people. At the same time, having a species like the spotted owl go extinct is also unacceptable.”
Politically, to defend barred owls is to argue against the long-held hope of recovering jobs in logging and forestry. For conservationists and environmentalists, to defend barred owls amounts to admitting that ecological preservationism was just a legal strategy all along, untenable in the long run when challenged by the realities of evolution, including that species migrate or decline in response to habitat change, and sometimes die out entirely if unable to adapt.
Friends of Animals lawsuit
Therefore, the last hope for the remaining barred owls in the 100 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-designated “study areas,” which might also be called barred owl killing zones, is a lawsuit filed in October 2013 by Friends of Animals.
Friends of Animals contends that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service plan to kill barred owls violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, in effect since 1918, requires that killing birds for research must benefit the species that is killed, whereas in this case the experiment benefits a different species.
Elaborated FoA in a 2013 prepared statement, “The northern spotted owl has been in decline for more than 40 years, primarily due to logging of old growth forest in California, Oregon and Washington. In approving the barred owl removal plan, the Federal defendants identified a new threat to the northern spotted owl: the barred owl. The barred owl removal plan does nothing to protect northern spotted owls, “ FoA charged, “but instead attempts to divert the focus from protection of northern spotted owl habitat by scapegoating barred owls.”
FoA called the barred owl removal plan “immoral, unethical and cruel,” and said that it amounts to a plan “to allow indiscriminate killing” of barred owls.
Plan in works for more than a decade
The Fish & Wildlife Service has tested public response with occasional mentions of killing barred owls to help spotted owls since 2004. A USFWS environmental impact statement published in July 2013 identified killing 3,603 barred owls over four years in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, as is planned now, as the “preferred course of action” to ensure spotted owl survival.
“To move forward with killing barred owls without addressing the fundamental cause of spotted owl declines, from our perspective, is not acceptable,” Portland Audubon Society conservation director Sallinger said then.
“Shooting barred owls in a few isolated areas is not going to help us as forest managers, nor is it going to help protect the forest from wildfires, and catastrophic wildfire is one of the big impediments to spotted owl recovery,” agreed American Forest Resource Council president Tom Partin.
But the American Bird Conservancy has endorsed the scheme. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a very carefully thought-out experiment to see whether removing hundreds of barred owls will benefit spotted owls,” ABC senior policy director Holmer said in February 2012.
British Columbia experiment
A similar experiment has already been undertaken in Canada.
The British Columbia Forests & Lands Ministry from 2007 through 2012 had relocated 73 barred owls and authorized killing 39 to prevent them from competing for habitat with the 10 northern spotted owls left in southwestern B.C. province, Dene Moore of Canadian Press reported in January 2013.
“Relocation or elimination of barred owls is limited to a five-kilometer radius around areas where spotted owls have recently been confirmed, or areas being considered for reintroduction from a captive breeding program,” wrote Moore. Northern spotted owls “were listed endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in 1986 and red-listed in B.C. in 1989,” Moore recalled. “A provincial management plan was adopted in 1997. The province designated special management areas under a 2006 management plan,” beginning captive breeding after that.
The major claimed precedent for killing barred owls to benefit northern spotted owls is the Green Diamond Resource Company project. There, biologist Lowell Diller has since 2010 killed 106 barred owls. “In the areas where barred owls have been removed, the spotted owl population has rapidly recovered,” Diller contends.
But California Academy of Sciences curator Jack Dumbacher, who initially worked with Diller, questions the wisdom of the killing.
“If the barred owls made it out here fair and square,” Dumbacher told Associated Press, “then maybe it’s a natural event we should watch unfold.”