Barred owl killing plan continues but with uncertain results


While the federal government considers revamping the Northwest Forest Plan and uplisting the spotted owl from threatened to endangered, there was another development recently in the spotted owl saga.

Say what you will about the feds’ plan to kill the competing barred owl, but it’s at least an acknowledgement that the real threat to the spotted owl is its larger and more aggressive cousin, which over the last few decades has moved west into the spotted owl’s territory. The spotted owls are dying off because they can’t compete for food, and in some cases, the barred owls are even killing the spotted owls directly.

Last year two animal rights groups sued to stop the federal plan to kill the barred owls in sites in California, Oregon and Washington. That lawsuit was just rejected by a U.S. District Court judge.

Friends of Animals and Predator Defense, two animal rights groups, filed a complaint last year accusing the agency of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to evaluate alternatives to lethal removal of barred owls.

They also claimed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s study is contrary to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, under which the U.S. and other countries agreed to protect migratory birds.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken has rejected these arguments, finding that the agency wasn’t obligated to undertake other “recovery actions” for the spotted owl that didn’t call for removal of barred owls.

The agency took a sufficiently “hard look” at the study’s effects, including the possibility that it may disrupt an “equilibrium” between the two owl species in some areas, Aiken said.

The experiment also falls within an exception to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which permits birds to be killed for “scientific research or educational purposes,” she said.

The Bend (Ore.) Bulletin agreed with the judge’s ruling, but said the feds’ whole barred owl killing plan may be a waste of time and money. And this all comes after the feds’ spotted owl protection plan 25 years ago damaged the timber industry without apparently helping the owl, the Bulletin pointed out.

(Judge) Aiken, to her credit, found otherwise. The Fish and Wildlife Service was not obligated to find an approach that protects both owls, she said, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act allows for the killing of the barred owl for research purposes.

In the end, however, the whole exercise may be misguided. The two owls interbreed, for one thing, and that practice could increase. And then there’s this: Critters better able to compete for such things as food and shelter long and have driven out their weaker cousins. If that’s what is happening here, no amount of study will change it.

Some of the people killing the barred owl on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service feel like the plan is going well.

From a Newsweek story in May:

Lowell Diller still remembers the rules his father taught him when he was learning to hunt as a boy: A hunter should kill only for food and respect the lives of beneficial species, such as the hawks and owls that keep down rodent populations. So he was never to kill a raptor.

But Diller has now shot dozens of them, as part of a barred owl removal pilot experiment in Northern California. Between 2009 and 2014, Diller and his team removed 106 barred owls from the study area, a 150-mile stretch of coastal redwood forest running from just south of Eureka, California, to the Oregon border. Diller, who has been monitoring spotted owls in the area since 1989, was convinced the experiment was necessary. But he also decided that if he really believed that, he had to be willing to shoot the birds himself.

Early results, he says, validate his conviction. “In the areas where barred owls have been removed, the spotted owl population has rapidly recovered,” Diller says. In one prime territory, which had lacked spotted owls for three years, a pair took up residence just two weeks after the barred owls were removed.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife, for its part, says there isn’t enough data yet to say whether the plan is working.

So far, 71 barred owls were removed during the first year of the study and 54 were removed during the second year, both at a site in Northern California.

The Fish and Wildlife Service expects the removals to begin in at least two new sites in Oregon and Washington during the autumn of 2015.

Data collected during the first two removal periods is insufficient to indicate whether the removals are helping spotted owls, Bown said. “It’s hard to look for a trend with only two points.”