Despite opposition, feds will start killing barred owls this fall


As we wrote earlier this summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving forward this fall on a four-year project to kill barred owls in an attempt to help the endangered spotted owl.

The feds 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.

Technically, though, the feds’ announcement in July described the barred owl plan as the “preferred alternative.” This week, the USFW said it gave final approval to start the owl removal project this fall.

“We can’t ignore the mounting evidence that competition from barred owls is a major factor in the northern spotted owl’s decline, along with habitat loss,” said Service Director Dan Ashe. “We are working with our partners to improve forest health and support sustainable economic opportunities for local communities, and this experimental removal will help us determine whether managing the barred owl population also helps recover the northern spotted owl.”

As we outlined in our earlier post, the opposition to the feds’ plan to kill barred owls has been strong and swift. Even proponents of the plan seem ambivalent in their support, as mentioned in a Yakima Herald-Republic story this week.

“This is not something the Fish and Wildlife Service does lightly. We don’t like the idea of going out and having to kill this beautiful bird,” said (Robin Bown, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Wildlife based in Portland).. “But we don’t like the idea of the spotted owl going extinct, either. We’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Marina Skumanich, executive director of the Seattle Audubon Society, said that the group is open to removal research if done with a humane and scientific protocol, but they don’t want to see barred owl removal become the primary management tool.

“We neither support nor oppose it, but as a general rule, we don’t want people to get distracted by this approach to management,” said Skumanich. “We think the focus should continue to be on habitat conservation.”

In an earlier iteration of the plan, federal forestland on the Olympic Peninsula was under consideration, but the USFW decided it wasn’t feasible because there weren’t enough forest roads, according to a story this week in the Peninsula Daily News. The Kittitas County site was chosen instead.

Even weeks after the feds’ announcement in July, opposition to the barred owl plan was still coming in. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, in a recent op-ed in the Idaho Statesman, said the federal government is trying to intervene to protect a species that is clearly weaker than the larger, more aggressive barred owl.

Back in 1994, when the Northwest Forest Plan was launched to protect about 20 million acres of federal land from logging in defense of spotted owls, we all were assured that habitat was the key to their survival. We were told that abandoning an economy and a culture that had supported generations of people would pay off with the salvation of an “indicator species” and, by extension, a unique and irreplaceable ecosystem.

It sounded a lot like what’s by now become shop-worn shorthand for the insanity of war: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

As it turned out, that federally protected old-growth habitat did nothing for the spotted owl population, which has continued to decline. That’s a lot more than unfortunate for the timber towns and the families who used to live there. But now the Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the real culprit, and has it in its sights.

…Like most federal programs, it figures to be LOPSOD — long on promises, short on delivery. But if it winds up working better than shutting down our forests did, which is a very low bar to clear, should we then start saving a place on the endangered species list for barred owls next?