Should feds kill one owl species to help another?


For two years now, we’ve known the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was planning to kill competing barred owls as part of a larger set of proposals to help the endangered spotted owl.

This owl killing plan seemed outrageous to many people, both in the timber industry and environmental groups. This week, the Fish and Wildlife Service released details about the plan, which is set to begin this fall. And with the plan now just months away, the reaction was swift.

Neither the timber industry nor the Audubon Society was pleased with it.

“Shooting a few isolated areas of barred owl isn’t going to help us as forest managers, nor is it going to help the forest be protected from wildfires, and catastrophic wildfire is one of the big impediments to spotted owl recovery,” said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, said saving the spotted owl is of paramount importance, but the focus must remain on protecting habitat.

“To move forward with killing barred owls without addressing the fundamental cause of spotted owl declines, from our perspective, is not acceptable,” he said.

Bob Ragon, the executive director of Douglas Timber Operators, told the Roseburg (Ore.) News-Review that the feds are wasting their time.

Barred owls will continue to overwhelm spotted owls by their natural advantages, he predicted.

“I think it’s a futile effort,” he said. “It’s so insane it’s hard to comprehend.

“It’s just going to prolong the agony,” Ragon said. “It’s another indication of the Endangered Species Act being taken to ridiculous extremes.”

The Albany (Ore.) Democrat-Herald editorialized that the killing of a competing owl species shows “a tinge of desperation” in the feds’ larger plan to save the spotted owl. The feds would likely not disagree. They say the plan is a last resort, and extreme human action is necessary because they believe it was humans who allowed the spotted owl to decline and become vulnerable to the larger, more aggressive barred owl.

The plan calls for the removal, mostly by shotgun, of 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.

Not all timber leaders are opposed to the killing of the barred owl. As we noted last year, the inspiration for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan came from a Seattle timber company, Green Diamond Resource Co., which killed 73 owls on its Northern Califonia property as part of a federal pilot project.

The wildlife biologist who Green Diamond hired to complete its project, Lowell Diller, thinks the Fish and Wildlife Services’s plan should move forward.

(Diller) believes killing barred owls in the four experiment areas is worth a try.

“The alternative,” he said, ” is to give up on conservation of spotted owls.”

The question to be answered, he said, is the long-term feasibility of reducing and controlling barred owls over the spotted owls’ full range, from Northern California to British Columbia.

Letting spotted owls go extinct is “not a good alternative when you consider how much resources we’ve already committed” in recovery efforts, Diller said.

But even Fish and Wildlife leaders say there are questions still to be answered.

The removal plan is a “preferred alternative” that will become final after 30 days. (Robin) Bown, the (Fish and Wildlife) biologist in charge, thinks the experiment will work.

“I personally believe we’ll see an improvement in our spotted owl population where we remove barred owls,” she said. “What we don’t know is how we’ll keep them out the area — the feasibility and efficiency and efficacy of the process.”