Oregon:Barred Owls May Be Shot

February 09, 2011 - International, National and Local News

Frank Butson Reports:

Information from: The Oregonian,
From Eric Mortenson
Nothing’s worked. Not the clamp on federal timber sales that hammered Oregon’s mill towns. Not the lawsuits or the listing as an endangered species. The belated work to retain and restore its favored old-growth habitat will take decades to unfold. Twenty plus years of trying to save the northern spotted owl and it’s still slipping away.
Come summer,federal wildlife officials expect to finish a draft environmental impact statement that most likely recommends taking to the woods with shotguns. Over the next year, in three or more study areas from Washington to northern California, they might kill 1,200 to 1,500 barred owls — the larger, more aggressive competitor that has routed spotted owls from much of their territory and become, along with habitat loss, the biggest threat to their survival.
It’s a wrenching decision that splits wildlife biologists and environmentalists. Killing one native animal to benefit another — especially a “big, beautiful raptor, a fantastic bird,” as one biologist puts it — is such a leap that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired an environmental ethicist to guide its discussions.
“There’s no winner in that debate,” says Bob Sallinger, conservation director with the Portland Audubon Society.
Some biologists believe the proposal won’t work. More barred owls, perhaps hundreds, would have to be killed every year to keep the study areas free of interlopers for three to 10 years. One biologist estimated the cost at up to $1 million annually.
Others oppose intervening in what they see as natural selection at work.
“Population dynamics between two native species should not be artificially manipulated,” says Blake Murden, wildlife and fisheries director for Port Blakely Tree Farms in Tumwater, Wash. The company is not anti-owl. In 2009 it agreed to manage 45,000 acres as spotted owl habitat in exchange for protection from additional logging restrictions.
Murden says barred owls expanded rapidly because they adapt well to mixed habitat and eat a variety of prey, while spotted owls prefer old-growth to nest and, in most of its range, flying squirrels to eat.
“It’s a generalist and a specialist,” Murden says, “and invariably the generalist will win.”

Spotted owl vs. barred owl
Northern spotted owl
Strix occidentalis caurina
Size: 16 to 19 inches tall, up to 48-inch wingspan, weighs 1 to 2 pounds
Appearance: Medium size, brown with white spots; round-headed, no ear tufts
Life span: 10 to 20 years
Range: British Columbia to Northern California
Habitat: Mature and old-growth forests
Prey: Primarily flying squirrels and tree voles, more varied at southern end of its range
Reproduction: Mating season February or March, two or three eggs in nest
Personality: Curious, associates human researchers with food
Status: Population declining by 3 percent annually; listed since 1990 as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because of habitat loss, now losing territory to barred owls
Barred owl
Strix varia
Size: 17 to 20 inches tall, 40- to 50-inch wingspan, weighs 1 to 2 pounds.
Appearance: Medium size, brown with white horizontal bars on the chest and white vertical bars on the belly; round-headed, no ear tufts
Life span: 10 to 20 years
Range: Originally from East Coast, spread westward across U.S. and Canada, now found throughout the spotted owl’s range
Habitat: Prefers old growth in the Northwest, but highly adaptable; lives in temperate rain forests, wooded swamps, even city parks
Prey: Wide variety of rodents and small mammals
Reproduction: Breeds March through August, lays two to four eggs
Personality: Aggressive, territorial, wary; known in the East as a “hoot owl” because of distinctive call characterized as “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”
Status: Expanded rapidly over past 20 years

Will shooting help? A limited experiment on private California timberland showed spotted owls returned to their original nesting and roosting areas in every instance when barred owls were killed. In one case, a pair that hadn’t been seen for more than two years reappeared just 10 days after a pair of barred owls were shot.

The biologist who carried out the experiment cautions the results may not apply everywhere. Owl habitat and prey in Oregon and Washington are quite different, says Lowell Diller, with Green Diamond Resource Co., which owns 400,000 acres of timber adjacent to Redwood National Park.
He nonetheless concludes barred owls can be controlled. Choosing to do so, however, is “looming as one of the biggest conservation dilemmas we have faced in the Northwest.”
The spotted owl is a conservation icon. Its 1990 listing as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act was the first to have such broad economic, social and environmental impact.
“We have a huge amount of resources committed to protecting that species,” Diller says. “Then we have the barred owl show up.”
Down in timber country, Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson  calls the proposal to shoot barred owls an example of “dysfunctional” forest policy. Counties like his depend economically on federal timber, which Robertson says is managed to benefit a species that can’t be recovered.

“When nature takes a turn, it’s going to prevail no matter what we try to do,” he says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s nonsense to shoot one species to benefit another. I don’t think the public will accept it.”
We’ve intervened before. The freshest local example — currently halted by a federal appeals court — is the killing of more than three dozen California sea lions at Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River because they devour thousands of salmon.
Federal agents moved or killed cormorants and terns that feed on juvenile salmon and steelhead in the Columbia. Oregon offers a bounty on northern pike minnows, which also eat young salmon. Elsewhere, Texas landowners kill or trap cowbirds because they invade the nests of smaller songbirds.
But shooting barred owls is a different story. Those against it argue they are a native, not an invasive species, and their threat to spotted owls is due to range expansion and competition.
Some biologists believe barred owls and spotted owls were the same species before diverting into East and West Coast versions, respectively, during the Ice Age. Spotted owls are about 18 inches tall and weigh slightly more than a pound. Barred owls are somewhat larger. The two have interbred in some cases and produced fertile offspring.
At first, barred owls slowly advanced westward with settlers. Barred owls were in Montana by 1909, British Columbia by 1943, Washington state in 1965 and Oregon in 1972.
Population statistics aren’t available, but biologists agree the Northwest’s barred owl numbers exploded in the past 20 years. Diller, the Green Diamond biologist, believes they either reached a population tipping point or fully adapted to West Coast conditions and became “kind of a super owl.”
“They just do everything well,” he says.Spotted Owls dont.They’ve been on the ropes for decades due to heavy logging of old-growth forests. A 1990 report estimated Spotted Owl habitat had been reduced 60% to 88% since the early 1800s.The decrease in logging has been equally sharp. In 1988, Oregon loggers cut 4.9 billion  board feet of timber on federal land. The 2009 federal harvest was 240 million  board feet.
Logging reductions undoubtedly saved habitat, but the bird itself hasn’t shown signs of recovering. Spotted owl population estimates are vague, but studies indicate it declines 3 percent annually in much of its range. Some scientists estimate that a couple thousand mating pairs remain, and leave it at that.
Biologists knew as early as 2004 that barred owls were displacing spotted owls. A report that year warned of their “negative impact,” and a 2006 report labeled barred owls among the “most pressing threats” to spotted owls.
The 2010 spotted owl recovery plan, to be released in mid-February, concludes “barred owl removal should be initiated as soon as possible.” Meanwhile, a fish and wildlife service work group is drafting a parallel environmental impact statement on killing barred owls. It will be finished by early summer.
Conservation groups are waiting to see the statement before committing, but begrudgingly acknowledge they may support barred owl removal on an experimental basis.
“We certainly don’t want barred owls killed, but the highest priority has to be placed on not having spotted owls go extinct,” says Sallinger, with the Portland Audubon Society.
He argues logging weakened spotted owls to the point barred owls could expand rapidly. Amending habitat loss is the first step in rebalancing the playing field, he says. “Going out and killing barred owls, if you haven’t taken the other necessary steps, would be really horrific.” 
Last October, biologist Robin Bown and others from the federal barred owl work group accompanied Green Diamond biologist Lowell Diller into the forest.
It was near dusk, on a ridge where Diller had seen a territorial barred owl a few days before. He played a recording of a barred owl call, and within a few minutes the targeted bird flew in to investigate.
Diller made sure the area was clear, took aim with a shotgun and blasted the owl from its perch. It was a clean kill, instantaneous.
Diller has a scientific collection permit to shoot barred owls. He and another biologist killed 20 in 2006 and 20 more in 2009. Last summer, he secured a permit to kill up to 70 more over three years in the study area.
The company has a government-approved conservation plan that avoids additional regulations if they maintain habitat for spotted owl.
“The success of that plan depends on us having spotted owls occupy our landscape and utilize our habitat,” Diller says. “If barred owls preclude them from using it, then our plan is going to fail.”
At one time, Green Diamond had more than 150 spotted owl nesting sites, and biologists saw barred owls perhaps once a year. Now, barred owls appear every time Diller turns on his recorded owl calls.
“They are taking over,” he saysBarred owls’ aggression is their Achilles heel, Diller says. When they hear another owl calling — barred or spotted — they fly to confront the intruder. Less wary than usual, they are easy targets.
You don’t have to kill them all, he says. A measured reduction in their numbers — 10 to 20 percent — might be enough to allow the two species to coexist.
“The worst thing would be to spend millions, kill a bunch of barred owls, and get no treatment effect.”

But it’s a tough business. Diller says he couldn’t watch when he went out the first time in 2006, with the other biologist wielding the shotgun.
“It’s not something you do casually,” he says.
As leader of the fish and wildlife service’s work group, Bown believes it was important for team members to see firsthand what they may endorse. They recovered the owl Diller shot and packed it off for study.
Bown also believes a “positive response” by spotted owls is very likely. Federal wildlife managers, she says, have a mandate under the Endangered Species Act to give deference to spotted owls.
That doesn’t make the decision easy.”It’s values and ethics,” she says, “and how we look at the world.”