View full sizeRichard Read/The OregonianWildlife officials propose killing barred owls, which are taking territory from spotted owls.
Northern spotted owls earned a place on the endangered species list due to habitat loss from logging and fire, but their biggest nemesis now is an East Coast cousin.
Larger, more aggressive, more adaptable barred owls moved West in the 1960s, found food and shelter to their liking and have since displaced spotted owls throughout much of British Columbia to Northern California. Spotted owls declined 40 percent over the past 25 years, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says they may go extinct in some parts of their range if something isn't done about barred owls.
So it means to kill them. Perhaps hundreds of barred owls will be shot -- "removed" is the gentler agency word for it -- during a 3- to 10-year experiment in tightly defined areas of Northwest forests. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said Tuesday the government "can't ignore the mounting evidence that competition from barred owls is a major factor in the spotted owl's decline."
A draft environmental impact statement to be released soon includes options for capturing barred owls instead of killing them, but experimental lethal control is the most likely alternative, according to scientists.
The goal is to determine if eliminating barred owls will make life better for spotted owls. In the test areas, scientists will track spotted owl population trends, survival rates and nesting site occupancy with barred owls out of the picture.
Barred owl removal was one of two major spotted owl recovery projects announced by Salazar and others Tuesday. The government also said it will consider up to 10 million acres of western forests for designation as "critical habitat" for spotted owls.
The designation, to be finalized in November, does not prohibit logging. Instead, it requires federal agencies such as the Forest Service to consult with the wildlife agency when approving logging, road building or other activity in federal forests that might impact the owl's habitat. Timber industry groups worry the designations will add another layer of review and possible legal challenges to federal timber sales, and question the impact on private land.
The American Forest Resource Council, based in Portland, said the initial proposal nearly doubles an earlier critical habitat designation. "No one knows if the designated areas are in fact essential to spotted owl recovery, or if spotted owls even use them," the council said in a news release.
Salazar said 4 million acres of state and private forests and national parks are excluded from habitat designation, and more land may be removed as the plan is reviewed. He said logging will be allowed even in spotted owl habitat, using the southern Oregon "ecological timber harvest" model established by forestry professors Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson.
Salazar said their work shows a way to "move beyond the paralysis and litigation" that have tied forest policy in knots for two decades.
"Clear-cut vs. no-cut is a false choice," Salazar said. "We can protect old growth and provide timber jobs."
Wildlife intervention is something else.
Some point out that wildlife agencies shoot sea lions gobbling salmon at Bonneville Dam and hunt down invasive pythons that threaten wildlife in the Everglades.
Despite qualms, there is evidence that removing barred owls works.
In Northern California, wildlife biologist Lowell Diller oversees a federally approved pilot project that in three years has killed 48 barred owls on timberland owned by his employer, Green Diamond Resource Co. In every instance when barred owls were removed from historic spotted owl territory, spotted owls returned.
"The evidence seems pretty strong in my mind," Diller says. "I'll go out on a scientific limb and say -- at least in this region -- it will work.
"The question then is: Is it ethically the right thing to do? Does society want us to do it? Is it feasible? Can we physically do it."
Diller, who has monitored spotted owls on Green Diamond forests for 22 years, favors the experimental removal of barred owls.
"That's the only way we will know for sure what our options are for recovering the spotted owl," he says.
He says capturing and relocating barred owls is not an option, in part because zoos and other agencies are not willing to take more than a few. "You can spend literally a week to capture one bird," Diller says. "And what do you do with them after you capture them?"
Jack Dumbacher, a California Academy of Sciences curator who worked with Diller in the early years of the project, says there is debate about how barred owls arrived in the West. Some believe their migration paralleled human movement and development, which provided trees for habitat.
"If they made it out here fair and square, then maybe it's a natural event we should watch unfold," he says.
On the other hand, the spotted owl is an important species and the law requires officials to protect them from major threats.
"It's not all just biology that comes to play here," Dumbacher says. "There are some real ethical issues about what role we ought to be taking."