Killing one kind of bird to save another might sound morbid, but federal wildlife officials say it’s the best chance to help yank the spotted owl back from the brink of extinction. Some conservation groups are balking at the plan.
The spotted owl became a rallying point for the environmental movement in the 1980s and 1990s. It prefers nesting in old growth forests, which have shrunk dramatically with the encroaching timber industry and development in the Pacific Northwest. The owl was added to the federal government’s endangered species list in 1990, and the stern land-use protections closed much of its habitat off to logging.
But while Congress can keep the timber industry in check, it’s been harder to place similar restrictions on the spotted owl’s feathery cousins. The barred owl, which used to be limited to the eastern U.S., began moving into the Pacific Northwest starting in the late 1970s. Larger and more indiscriminate about what it eats, the barred owl is elbowing the spotted owl out of the forest. The spotted owl is now declining at rate of about 2.9 percent every year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
To save the spotted owl, USFWS is planning to remove the competition. This week, the agency unveiled a final environmental review of its plan to remove barred owls from parts of the northern spotted owl’s range, using both lethal and non-lethal methods. The current version of the plan calls for around 3,600 barred owls to be culled from four study areas in Washington, Oregon, and California over four years.
Federal wildlife biologist Robin Bown has pushed back against what she calls mischaracterizations of the plan.
“We’re not sending public hunters into the woods to declare open season on the barred owl,” Bown told the Los Angeles Times. “This is a controlled experiment, using folks who are trained and skilled at animal removal. Our goal in this experiment is twofold: Will moving barred owls help the spotted owl population to recover? And can we use removal of barred owls as a management tool?”
Amanda Rodewald, the director of conservation science at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, pointed out that wildlife officials have culled birds before to save more threatened species. Predatory gulls have been removed to protect endangered terns.
“There’s quite a number of native species that have expanded their range, impacting native species in new areas they’re colonizing,” Rodewald says.
The plight of the Kirtland’s warbler is remarkably similar to that of the spotted owl; it suffers from both a lack of its preferred nesting habitat, a jack pine forest. But is also threatened by the brown-headed cowbird, which has a habit of hoodwinking other birds into raising its young. The female cowbird will often evict eggs from a songbird’s nest, or kill young nestlings, to make room for its own eggs. Federal officials have been removing cowbirds from Kirtland’s warbler nesting areas since about 1972, and this move has largely been credited with improving the songbird’s numbers.
But some say culling distracts from the real issues. Bob Sallinger, the conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, Ore., says his organization recognizes that habitat loss has created a situation where the barred owl is contributing to the spotted owl’s woes. Preserving the spotted owl and its native old growth forests is of the highest priority.
But “we remain unconvinced that this strategy, which will result in the death of thousands of barred owls will be effective, and we are deeply concerned that the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to do an inadequate job of protecting old habitat,” Sallinger wrote in an email.
The Audubon chapter is particularly concerned by the fact that Congress is currently considering changes to Oregon forest lands that could also further jeopardize spotted owls, according to Sallinger.
“To move forward with killing barred owls while continuing to do an inadequate job of address the habitat loss issues that jeopardized the spotted owl in the first place makes no sense,” Sallinger says.
Rodewald acknowledged that there are fears that culling can be seen as a distraction from habitat preservation, but said the situation with the spotted owl has gotten so dire that stop-gap measures like culling might be appropriate. It is partially because the spotted owl’s range is so limited that the barred owl’s presence is so destructive. At any rate, she says, USFWS is trying out the strategy as an experiment.
Federal wildlife officials are “not going in saying, ‘this is what we’re gonna do forever,’ they’re going in to evaluate how effective that approach is,” Rodewald says.