To save spotted owls, US officials plan to kill hundreds of thousands of other owl species

To save the endangered spotted owl from extinction, US wildlife officials are embracing a controversial plan to deploy trained shooters in dense West Coast forests to kill nearly half a million barred owls that are crowding out their cousins .

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strategy released Wednesday is intended to support a decline in the number of spotted owls in Oregon, Washington state and California. The Associated Press previously obtained details.

Documents released by the agency show up to about 450,000 owls have been barred over decades after the birds from the eastern US encroached on the territory of two West Coast owls: the northern spotted owl and the California spotted owl. The small spotted owls were unable to compete with the invaders, who have large broods and need less space to live than the hawthorn.

Previous efforts to save spotted owls have focused on protecting the forests where they live, sparking bitter fights against logging but helping to slow the birds’ decline. The spread of barred owls in recent years is undermining earlier work, officials said.

“Without active management of barred owls, northern spotted owls are likely to disappear in all or most of their range, despite decades of cooperative conservation efforts,” said the Oregon State Service’s state ranger. Kessina Lee Fish and Wildlife.

Both wildlife advocates and conservationists have embraced the notion of killing one species of bird to save another. It is reminiscent of the government’s past efforts to save salmon on the West Coast by killing sea lions and cormorants that prey on the fish, and to conserve terns by killing cowbirds that lay eggs in the nests of gulls.

Some advocates grudgingly accepted the owl removal strategy; others said it was a reckless diversion from needed forest conservation.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is changing from a protector of wildlife to a persecutor of wildlife,” said Wayne Pacelle, founder of the advocacy group Animal Wellness Action. He predicted the program would fail because the agency won’t be able to keep more barred owls from migrating to areas where others have been killed.

Shooting is likely to begin next spring, officials said. Barred owls would be lured by using megaphones to broadcast recorded owl calls, then shot with shotguns. Carcasses would be placed on the site.

Researchers are already killing the birds in some spotted owl habitats, with about 4,500 removed since 2009, said Robin Bown, head of barred owl strategy for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Among those targeted was a barred owl in the Sierra Nevada region of California, where the animals have only recently arrived and officials are trying to stop holding populations.

In other areas where owls are under more established bans, officials aim to reduce their numbers but admit they are unlikely to eliminate them entirely.

Supporters include the American Bird Conservancy and other conservation groups.

Barred owls don’t belong in the West, said American Bird Conservancy Vice President Steve Holmer. It would be a shame to kill them, he said, but reducing their numbers could allow them to live alongside spotted owls over the long term.

“As the old forests are allowed to regrow, hopefully there will be coexistence and maybe we won’t have to do as much,” Holmer said in the shooting.

The killings would reduce the number of barred owls in North America by less than 1% per year, officials said. This can be compared to the potential extinction of spotted owls, if the problem is not addressed.

Because barred owls are aggressive hunters, their association with other species on the West Coast that they prey on, such as salamanders and lobsters, may also help, said Tom Wheeler, director of the Information Center for Environmental Protection, a conservation group based in California.

Public hunting of barred owls would not be allowed. The wildlife service would designate government agencies, landowners, American Indian tribes or companies to carry out the kills. Shooters would be required to provide documentation of training or experience in owl identification skills and firearms.

A 30-day comment period will be opened before a final decision is made when a final environmental study on the proposal is published in the coming days.

The barred owl plan follows years of conflict between conservationists and timber companies, which has cut down large areas of older forest where spotted owls live.

Early efforts to save the birds culminated in logging bans in the 1990s pushed by the timber industry and its political supporters in Congress.

But the number of spotted owls continued to decline when barred owls began showing up on the West Coast several years ago. Across the region lost at least half of the spotted owls, with reductions of 75% or more in some study areas, said Katherine Fitzgerald, who heads the wildlife service northern spotted owl recovery program.

Proponents say the mass killing of barred owls would seriously disrupt forest ecosystems and could lead to the accidental shooting of other species – including spotted owls. They have also challenged the notion that barred owls do not belong on the West Coast, reflecting their expanding range as a natural ecological phenomenon.

Researchers say barred owls moved west in one of two ways: across the Great Plains, where trees planted by settlers pushed into new areas; or through Canada’s boreal forests, which have become more hospitable as temperatures rise due to climate change.

The Northern spotted owl is federally protected as a threatened species. Federal officials in 2020 determined that its continued decline merited an upgrade to the more critical “endangered” designation. But the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to do so at the time, saying other species took priority.

California’s spotted owl was recommended for federal protections last year. A decision is pending.

Under former President Donald Trump, government officials removed habitat protections for spotted owls at the behest of the timber industry. Those were reinstated under President Joe Biden after the Interior Department said political appointees under Trump relied on flawed science to justify weakening their defenses.

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