Owl Conservation: Examining the US Government Biologists’ Controversial Approach

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to shoot hundreds of thousands of barred owls in West Coast forests over the next 30 years, claiming they are causing the spotted owl to overpopulate. This is part of a series of efforts to save the spotted owl, which has been a key environmental issue since the 1980s, and could eventually go extinct if not addressed.

European settlers likely caused the barred owl to colonize the Pacific Northwest, leading to a proposal for over 470,000 barred owls to be “lethally removed” through shotgun killing. The proposal is open for public comment until January 16.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed a management plan to kill barred owls across one-third of their range in Washington, Oregon, and California over three decades. The plan would remove the barred owl from 1%-2% of its current range using trained shooters broadcasting an owl call and using spotlights and shotguns. An experimental study funded by the USFWS showed that 2,485 barred owls were killed, and spotted owls had a 10% better survival rate in areas where they were removed.

However, the removal stabilized the spotted owl population but did not substantially increase it. The USFWS believes it will take longer than five years to see spotted owl populations turn around due to their slow reproduction. The removal of barred owls is likely to bounce back over time, so the USFWS would likely have to “perpetually manage the species.” Some animal rights groups, such as Friends of Animals, have criticized the USFWS’ decision to conduct the study.

Barred owls are not being hunted with a shotgun, as they are currently doing better in their environment and outperforming other species. Jennifer Best, the director of the organization’s wildlife law program, believes that killing thriving species is not a good solution. The spotted owl, which prefers to live in dwindling old-growth trees, came to the Pacific Northwest forests during the Timber Wars in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The conflict led to protections for the bird and its habitat, and in 1990, the owl became a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. However, barred owls began to take over the area, possibly due to climate changes in Canada or human-caused changes in the Great Plains. Over a 100-year period, barred owls slowly moved across the area, and once they hit the West Coast and the forest, they began to explode.

Best believes killing barred owls distracts from conserving spotted owls’ habitat. He believes protecting old-growth forests and restoring destroyed habitats is the most important long-term solution. The USFWS proposal for a final proposal is expected in the spring or summer after the public comment period ends, focusing on protecting spotted owls in their natural habitats.

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