Effort to kill barred owls gets into full swing in the West

2014-05-23 Ashley Bach

It's been nearly a year now since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave final approval to a four-year project to kill barred owls in an attempt to help the endangered spotted owl.

The project, which officially started last fall, will remove 3,600 barred owls from four sites in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. That includes 630 owls removed from the Washington site, located on 220,400 acres, mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service, near Cle Elum.

We haven't heard much about the project since it began, but some reports are starting to trickle in. A San Francisco TV station recently followed along while wildlife officials hunted barred owls near the California-Oregon border. What's clear from the story is that even the people doing the killing are torn up about it.

KPIX 5 followed (Hoopa Indian tribal biologist) Mark (Higley) on a hike, along with Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Bown, to one of the last two spotted owl nests on the reservation.

All it took was a mouse to lure one of the creatures out.

She says to save them, “lethal removal” of their aggressive cousins is the only option. “We asked the states back east if they would like some of them back, but they really don’t have any place to put them,” she said.

Mark admits it’s not easy. “Oh it's awful, I mean I am a biologist, the barred owl is a wonderful species, it’s a spectacular bird. The only reason I am doing this is that I feel it’s an invasive species,” he said.

Nonetheless, the biologist for the Hoopa tribe, Mark Higley, says his team shot and killed 71 barred owls over the winter.

The plan to kill the barred owls continues to be opposed by many groups on the left and the right of the political spectrum. Here's an animal rights activist quoted in the San Francisco story.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” said Jennifer Barnes. She’s an attorney with the animal rights group Friends of Animals. “As soon as they stop the shooting more of the owls will come in,” she said.

Her group has filed a lawsuit to stop the killings, claiming barred owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Conservative commentator Dan Lucas wrote in the Salem Statesman-Journal earlier this month that the feds' continued failed effort to save the spotted owl hurts rural communities. The effort is also a case of selective enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, he writes.

It seems somewhat inconsistent and arbitrary. Some protected birds really get protected, and some protected birds are deliberately killed.

And then there's the complete green light given to the hundreds of thousands of birds that are killed by wind turbines...

Rather than getting prosecuted for violating up to three different federal laws protecting the birds, wind energy companies get tax subsidies from the government! And the birds getting killed include birds like bald eagles and golden eagles.

What's interesting is up in Canada, wildlife officials are much further along in a similar effort to kill or relocated barred owls in an attempt to protect the spotted owls. In Southwestern British Columbia, officials have relocated 94 barred owls and killed 39 barred owls in a multiyear effort.

So far, that long and multimillion-dollar project has resulted in an increase of just four spotted owls in the past two years, from 10 to 14, according to a story this week in the Vancouver Sun.

One of the biggest fears behind the barred-owl-killing projects is that relocated owls will just return to their original territory or that other barred owls will just swoop in and take over the territory of barred owls that were killed.

In at least one case, that's exactly what's happening in Canada.

The fate of most of the removed barred owls in B.C. is generally unknown, although one relocated 100 kilometres across three mountain ranges flew back to the spot where it was captured in the Stein Valley within a year.