In November, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service announced possible plans that could include the removal of hundreds of thousands of barred owls to save a more at-risk species, the spotted owl. Understandably, this plan has divided opinion.
The spotted owl is a native of old-growth forests, with three subspecies: the northern spotted owl of northern California to British Columbia, the California spotted owl with its range in the Golden State, and the Mexican spotted owl of the Southwest.
Spotted owls are struggling, while barred owls, a preliminary eastern species, are moving west. Barred owls are larger than spotted owls and often out-compete and displace spotted owls in western states like California, Washington, and Oregon, with barred owls’ presence in spotted owl territories the “primary factor negatively affecting” spotted owl populations, according to the USFWS.
Barred owls already face habitat loss due to logging of old-growth forests and a changing habitat as a result of climate change, and they’re not prolific breeders, either. Many individuals do not breed for periods of five to six years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology states, while juvenile mortality rates are between 75 and 85%, according to the Wilderness Committee.
With this in mind, the USFWS has released possible plans to manage barred owls within the spotted owl’s range, which it states is “necessary to support the survival” of California and northern spotted owls.
According to All About Birds, the spotted owl has a worldwide population of just 15,000 birds remaining, while barred owls have seven-figure populations.
Across the Pacific Northwest and California, the USFWS estimates there are about 3,600 breeding pairs of spotted owls, but 30 years from now, there will be just 886 if no action is taken. The agency is proposing the removal of over 20,000 barred owls in the first year of the plan and an annual average of 13,397 per year in the next decade, 16,303 per year in the second decade, and 17,390 annually in the third year in the northern spotted owl range. Over the three decades, that would be about half a million spotted owls, but would still be less than a percent of global barred owls, the USFWS states.
Other alternatives are also included in the 264-page USFWS management strategy, but ultimately, the lethal removal of thousands of barred owls might be the only way to protect the spotted owl, officials say.
Some people may find it understandably unpalatable to kill half a million barred owls, especially given that barred owls are native North American birds, even if they’re not native to this particular spot. It’s not like the house sparrow or European starling that doesn’t even belong on the continent.
Still, the spotted owl is at serious risk, and no matter how that number of barred owls may sound, the birds are more common, adaptable, and wide-ranging, so it won’t affect their population totals.
Why Is Saving Species Important?
For further reading, this article from the National Audubon Society does a good job laying out the unfortunate reality of saving one owl species by killing owls of another species, as well as the other problems that have contributed to the spotted owl’s downfall.
It may seem on the surface that humans aren’t necessarily at fault for the territorial quarrel between barred and spotted owls. It’s not like the human introduction of gray squirrels that has caused problems for red squirrels in the United Kingdom or the invasive carp species that are decimating lakes in North America – those species don’t even belong on those continents. But humans are not faultless in respect to the spotted owl’s problems.
Spotted owls wouldn’t be so vulnerable to barred owls if they hadn’t logged so much of their old-growth habitat, it’s stated in the aforementioned Audubon Society article. Northern spotted owls have been in the political spotlight for about three decades in fights about logging in northwestern forests, often cited as a poster child for old-growth forests.
According to the National Parks Service, the tree-dwelling barred owls were also previously not able to cross the Great Plains, but human activities have made their westward movement possible. Owls in the Northwest are also being poisoned by rodent poison, research has shown.
Part of the reason for saving the spotted owl may come down to the species’ iconic status in the Northwest, as well as some human moral responsibility for keeping species alive – something humans have failed at so many times throughout history.
But biodiversity is also important. As the Royal Society states, “Biodiversity is essential for the processes that support all life on Earth, including humans. Without a wide range of animals, plants, and microorganisms, we cannot have the healthy ecosystems that we rely on to provide us with the air we breathe and the food we eat.”
One owl species’ demise, maybe still inevitable, may not cause the crumbling of an entire ecosystem, with barred owls taking their ecological niche in some cases, but the more species we allow to die off, the closer we get to a world inhabited by only the generalists without all the diversity we love about the natural world.
Some people may understandably find the removal of barred owls unpalatable and unsupportable – after all, many people may have never seen a barred owl in their life, so how can they just remove them in the thousands?
Wildlife officials likely feel much the same way but realize that saving the spotted owl will come with necessary evils like large-scale barred owl removal.
Regardless of position, people have the option of making their voice heard on the management strategy proposed.
Public comments on the management strategy are due by Jan. 16 at www.regulations.gov under the I.D. FWS-R1-ES-2022-0074 or by mail to Public Comments Processing; Attn: Docket No. FWS–R1– ES–2022–0074; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, MS: PRB/3W; 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803