Win-Win Solution-FWS should humanely trap the Barred Owls in Spotted Owl territories, put them on a train to the Southeastern US and release them in the Everglades of FL or the Atchafalaya Swamps in Louisiana. Plenty of wetlands and habitat to support these unwanted Barred Owls down here in the deep South. Doing this would take the pressure off of the Spotted Owl in its native territories, and these Barred Owls would live to see another day. If the FWS can locate spotted owl nests, then it can also locate Barred Owl nests in the Spotted Owl territories and relocate them to the deep southern US.
Published July 17, 2014
At dusk in a forest along Redwood Creek in northern California, Lowell Diller switches on his digital wildlife caller. The eight-note call of a barred owl breaks the silence. Diller and Riley, his Brittany spaniel, listen for a response. Almost immediately the woods are filled with the deafening, cackling duet of a pair of barred owls, hooting to defend their territory against what they think is a rival.
At this point Diller, a wildlife biologist, usually ends the duet with a blast from his shotgun.
"When I went out to do it the first time, I was shaking, I had to steady myself," he remembers. "I wasn't sure I could actually do it. It was so wrong to be shooting a beautiful raptor like this. It continues to be awkward to this day."
As part of an experiment approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Diller has killed 92 barred owls in the past five years on lands owned by Green Diamond, the timber company he works for. He's doing it in the hope of saving a closely related species that's an icon for environmentalists: the northern spotted owl.
In 1990, when it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the northern spotted owl became the center of a bitter fight between loggers and environmentalists over the protection of its habitat, the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The FWS estimates that spotted owl habitat has declined by as much as 88 percent since the early 1800s.
Now barred owls, which are larger and more versatile predators, are invading from the east—and forcing spotted owls out.
Diller's owl hunting has been the pilot project for a larger effort that the FWS began last fall: a four-year experiment to kill up to 3,600 barred owls in about 2 percent of spotted owl habitat in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. "The experiment will provide us with the information to decide whether this is a reasonable management tool to maintain spotted owl populations," says Robin Bown, the FWS biologist who's leading the project. "And if so, What are the difficulties and the cost?"
Of Owls and Men
Native to eastern North America, barred owls began moving west around the beginning of the 20th century. They arrived in the range of the northern spotted owl in British Columbia in 1959 and have expand southward since. In many parts of that range they now outnumber spotted owls.
There are several theories about why barred owls moved westward. One theory holds that the treeless expanse of the Great Plains once formed a barrier that the owls couldn't cross. But as people settled the plains, planting trees in urban parks and windbreaks and suppressing fires that kept trees from growing, they created stepping stones for barred owls. The settlers' farms and grain silos also increased the rodent population, providing food for the owls.
According to Diller, the number of barred owls dramatically increased around 2000 in northern California. "Before then they were a novelty," he says. "Every time we would hear one, everyone wanted to go and see it, because they had never seen a barred owl before. Then for the first time we started seeing spotted owl numbers go downhill."
When biologist Eric Forsman of the U.S. Forest Service started studying northern spotted owls in the Oregon Coast Ranges more than 40 years ago, he'd never seen or heard a barred owl. One day last month he returned to an area called Connection Creek, where he'd found his first spotted owl nest in 1972.
Walking through thick brush of vine maple, salal, sword fern, and western dogwood, Forsman leads the way to an old-growth stand dominated by tall Douglas fir, western hemlock, and red cedar. Within minutes, a spotted owl flies in, lands on a tree only a few feet away, and intensely stares at him with dark chocolate eyes. Though they've lost most of their world to logging, "spotted owls are unafraid of humans," Forsman says. "They evolved in dense forest areas of the Pacific Northwest where humans were uncommon."
He walks over to the Douglas fir where the owl and its mate are nesting, and two five-week-old hatchlings can be heard quietly begging for food. "There used to be five or six nesting pairs in the watershed, but now we are down to just two hanging on here," Forsman says.
When he first came here, habitat loss was the main threat to spotted owls. Then in 1994 the federal government adopted the Northwest Forest Plan, setting aside 24.7 million acres (10 million hectares) of spotted owl habitat on public lands. "We thought that if we did a good job of protecting habitat, the spotted owl population would eventually reach equilibrium or even increase, and everything would be fine," Forsman explains.
It hasn't turned out that way. The spotted owl population is dropping by about 3.9 percent a year, and the decline is even steeper in the northern part of the owl's range in Washington, at 7 or 8 percent a year. The evidence is mounting that the barred owl is a big part of the problem.
Battle of the birds
Better Adapted to Our World
Barred owls can grow more than two feet tall, compared with a foot and a half for spotted owls, and they're more aggressive and more adaptable. They disrupt the nesting of spotted owls, compete with them for food, and chase them out of their territory. "Every time that happens, you have one less pair of spotted owls on the landscape," says Forsman.
A study of the interaction between the two species in western Oregon, led by biologist David Wiens of the U.S. Geological Survey, showed that barred owls nested earlier and more often than spotted owls and produced an average of 4.4 times as many young over a three-year period. Barred owls also require smaller territories because they'll eat almost anything, from rodents to amphibians to crayfish, whereas spotted owls will eat only a handful of species, such as flying squirrels and red tree voles.
"We found that each individual spotted owl was dealing with four or five different pairs of barred owls within its own range," Wiens says.
In the Oregon Coast Ranges the portion of spotted owl territories in which at least one barred owl was detected has steadily increased from one percent in 1990 to 83 percent in 2013. Conversely, the portion of sites in which a spotted owl was found has declined from 88 percent in 1991 to 32 percent in 2013. "Whenever I go in one of those sites where we had spotted owls 30 years ago and I find barred owls up there, there is this incredible sense of sadness," Forsman says.
The Oregon Coast Ranges are among the four test sites where the FWS plans to kill barred owls in a last-ditch effort to save spotted owls.
Should people be killing one owl to save another?
The advocacy group Friends of the Animals has filed a lawsuit against the FWS, arguing that barred owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. "Killing barred owls is just not a morally acceptable approach to ecosystem management," says Michael Harris, the group's legal director. "It is really micromanaging animals and habitats."
Under the Endangered Species Act, however, the FWS is legally responsible for helping species survive. "We spent 20 years hoping that the two species would work it out," says Robin Bown. "Now we are in a hurry, because we see the writing on the wall."
The FWS hired an ethicist, Bill Lynn of Clark University, to help guide its choices. Lynn concluded that the "lethal removal" experiment is justified because humans destroyed old-growth habitat in the first place and thereby placed spotted owls at a big disadvantage in the battle against the new intruder.
"If we had not been so rapacious with unsustainable logging, we might have seen a very different competitive dynamic between the barred owl and the northern spotted owl," Lynn says. "It is our responsibility to try as best as we can to make up for for the harm we have done in the past."
Forsman remains conflicted. Although he believes the experimental removal is justified from a scientific point of view, he doubts it will work as a management tool. "I don't think we can ever manage barred owls in the long run," he says. "We would have to do it forever. They are here to stay."
In California, Diller is convinced that getting rid of barred owls is the right thing to do. "I don't think we can save spotted owls everywhere, but we can allow them to persist at least in a portion of their range and give them time to adapt to this new threat," he says. "I choose to kill some barred owls so both species can persist, as opposed to doing nothing and allowing the spotted owl to go extinct."
Diller finds comfort in the fact that the experiment seems to be working. Spotted owls, he says, are returning to the sites where he has shot barred owls.
If anybody wants to get their fill of owl and old growth appreciation.....
I am not agree with the issue of killing one kind of owl to save the other ones... I am pretty sure. There are another kind of actions that can be take it... Please don´t be so simplish
My heart really goes out to these gentlemen. They are tasked with something where they are damned if they do, And damned if they don't. They are very conflicted and it must be a terrible feeling to have to kill one species in order to save another. I just hope and pray that they will be able to halt this type of owl management in the future. My prayers are with you guys!!!
As to -
"Shooting Owls to Save Other Owls"
WHO determines that ONE owl species is "preferred" over another?
This is nothing but affirmative action as applied to Nature.
Stop the madness.
Logging is necessary; and evolution works - let Mother Nature decide who roams the trees that are left.
This is a tough issue that is easy to get up in arms about. But there are multiple aspects of this dilemma that everyone should stop and consider.
1. The barred owl is the logging industries' best friend. The ONLY species that is preventing the logging of the last old growth forest in the pacific northwest is the northern spotted owl (...and marbled murrelet for coastal ranges). Once that chip falls, it is open season for the logging companies, and you can kiss your last old growth forests goodbye. No joke. They will be gone forever.
2. The culling of barred owls is a part of a four year study. The FWS ins't promoting unregulated rampant killing of barred owls. This project is happening in very specific locations for a duration of time to collect data. This data will be analyzed to make future management decisions.
3. We do not know the long term ecological impacts of barred owls. This is an invasive species, and it is very new to these forest ecosystems. As the article stated, barred owls eat whatever they can fit in their gullet. Songbirds, crawfish, frogs, salamanders, etc. Northern spotted owls stick to a very specific prey items: flying squirrels, woodrats, red tree voles. There is an ecological balance here, and nobody knows how the barred owl will affect this system.
4. The barred owl IS an invasive species. This is a raptor that is an eastern species that is taking advantage of human alteration of the landscape and warmer weather patterns to survive Canadian winters. This bird would never have made it to the west without human influence. Therefore, it can be considered in the same category as the European starling. It just happens to be a nocturnal raptor.
5. Please don't give into the "cuteness" factor. People get emotional when management involves a species that looks nice. Nobody gets emotional over zebra mussels or pampas grass, but once you get some charismatic macrofauna involved, all hell breaks loose.
6. If the barred owl is left to its own devices, the northern spotted owl will go extinct. Quickly. The data is very clear about this. This is why the FWS is involved at all, because it is tasked with the duty of protecting listed species. Currently, the NSO is threatened, within three years it will be endangered, which is exactly what we do NOT want. Keeping the NSO off the endangered species list will make management a lot easier for the logging industry and landowners alike. The end goal is to get the bird delisted all together so it doesn't have to be regulated.
Please put emotions aside and think critically, politically and economically about how the extinction of the northern spotted owl will change the northwest. Thanks!
oh and by the way, this is the same kind of thinking the folks in the UK had about the Badger cull.....and now beavers. The humans have lost their way and sad to say I am part of the collective...uuuugh! The damage is done, leave it be!
you gotta be kidding me right? Kill an owl to save an owl....what the hell is wrong with this picture? We created a situation via logging now we are trying to fix it by killing another being?? OMG! Humans get over yourself....this is not the answer. Deal with the consequences you created. Hang your head in shame and do not blame the demise of one animal on another when it was humans all along!!!
But seriously, killing the dominate species to save the weaker species, wouldn't that go against how every bit a life on this planet evolved from the start, there has to be a better answer
also those horrible commercials on tv about starving kids and abused animals without homes, do I really have to say. problem solved
This is about the most stupid idea I have ever heard. Let's shoot a few biologists in order to save the spotted AND barred owls.
Haven't we learned enough by trying to play Mother Nature in the past with all of our grand ideas,(introducing invasive species to kill other species,etc.).How's that working out for us...not very well.We have devastated the habitat isn't that enough?
I've often wondered if it's possible to teach a species to hunt something new, such as feeding young spotted owls mice, to broaden their diet and make them more adaptable. The spotted owl's rather rigid diet has been mentioned, so it's the bird's inability to adapt to change that's the problem.
I'd like to think that one question is being considered - namely where (if anywhere) does the spotted owl hold an advantage over the barred owl? In other words, what niches does it exploit better than the barred owl?
For a start, size is not always advantageous...
What happens when another native species expands into this territory or otherwise poses a threat to the spotted owl - are we to wage war on it as well?
There are plenty of invasive species to worry about threatening all manner of native life. These should be our overriding priority.
@Zexu Fang I suggest that you do some research on the barred owl invasion in the west, rather than just simply reading the title of the article.
You made some really good points, however I disagree with #1. Lowell
Diller, the biologist responsible for the experimental removal of barred
owls (I believe which started in 2006?) in northern California works
for Green Diamond Resource Company, which is a timber company. I cannot
however, speak for other timber companies in the northwest. As for the
few remaining old growth forests within the range of the spotted owl,
nearly all were converted to national parks where timber harvesting is
prohibited. Furthermore, northern spotted owls in the southern portion
of their range do not require old growth forests (>200 years) for
nesting, hunting, and reproductive purposes, but do however need a
portion of their home range to contain stands of larger trees, which
offer structural diversity required for nesting and enough canopy cover
to protect them from predators (basically what is referred to as second
With #4 - The climate change argument
has largely been dismissed as a reason for the recent invasion of the
barred owl. The more accepted theory is that humans have altered the
landscape, specifically the Great Plains which historically presented a
large migration barrier to this forest-dwelling raptor, by suppressing
fires, planting trees, removal of the bison, etc. All of which has made
the Great Plains (and specifically riparian areas) more forested,
therefore allowing the barred owl to migrate westward through previously
unsuitable habitat. But yes, the barred owl invasion is likely due to
humans alternating the landscape.
Also in response to #6, the northern spotted owl is listed under the Endangered Species Act (since 1990) as a threatened species (it's just not listed as endangered). And yes,as with all listed species, the goal is to get the spotted owl off of the Endangered Species Act altogether.Basically we have an ultimatum: shoot barred owls or watch the northern spotted owl go extinct. The goal is not to completely get rid of barred owls, as that would be impossible. The goal is to control the barred owl population so that spotted owls can co-exist or at least not go extinct throughout their entire range. Killing barred owls is basically a last resort effort to save the northern spotted owl. As a biologist who has worked with both species, I don't like the idea of killing a raptor to save another, but I believe that it needs to be done if we want to save the northern spotted owl, a species that we've spent so much time, effort, and money attempting to recover.
@Terri Schiavone The damage is in progress, and if you leave it be, then another species will go extinct, which will result in logging of old growth forest. How ethical is that?
@Terri Schiavone I recommend that you read some peer reviewed journals on the issue or at least do some research on the barred owl invasion and how it is affecting not only spotted owls but potentially many other species that have not evolved to deal with the barred owl. Unfortunately this is a way of dealing with the damage that we've caused to our forest ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest.
@Terri Schiavone Perhaps you need more information. The consequences that we created is happening right now. We altered the landscape to allow an eastern species to access the west. It will cause the extinction of the NSO. The NSO is the only political blockade between old growth habitat and the logging industry.
So ethically, do we sit back and let it happen? Do we allow a native species to go extinct, do nothing and then watch the remaining old growth get logged? How does "hanging our heads in shame" and slinking away do any good for habitat conservation?
What solutions do you recommend? Dig deep into your brain, and tell us. Yes, I'm asking you to think. How will you be of service to the environment and the world by tucking your tail between your legs and uttering expletives rather than providing useful commentary?
I challenge you. I dare you to think. I know it may hurt, but try.
@tim sampson re: 'horrible commercials on tv about starving kids and abused homeless animals' - where the hell did that come from? The only reference I've ever seen about those two issues together was in a letter I submitted to the Editor a couple of years ago recommending that we round up all those unwanted cats and dogs and ship them over to Africa to feed the starving children. The Journal would not print the letter.
@tim sampson Well considering that humans have sped the rate of natural extinctions by 1,000 times due to 1) habitat fragmentation, destruction, and degradation and 2) introducing invasive species (as in the case of the barred owl), I'm going to say no. And what the hell are you talking about with your reference to all those horrible commercials? You write like a Tea Party member.
@tim sampson Strength and weakness is not the issue. Ecological balance is the issue. Environmental policy is the issue. If it were two native species competing for a common niche, then let it be. However, this is an eastern species in the process of driving a western species into extinction.
This is a human made problem. How will we offer a human made solution? Do you have a better solution? A suggestion that required some thought behind the matter? I would like to hear it.
@tim sampson I don't understand what you've been blabbing about. Please use correct grammar and punctuation if you want to be taken seriously.
@Michael Busby Brilliant, Micheal. Way to go. Your cognitive skills are astounding. You must have really read that article beyond the title and thought about it to come up with that insightful commentary.
@Michael Busby The spotteds would just go extinct with your plan. It would be our fault for causing the problem (did you read?) and doubly our fault for not fixing it.
@carol keith When the NSO is extinct, that habitat you cherish is a gonner. For real. What is your solution to this issue? Give us thought. Give us an environmental solution. Tell us what you will do when the NSO is extinct and the loggers have free reign on the remaining old growth forest?
@LM Bowland This is a species that has evolved over millions of years to a very specific habitat that only in the recent century has been drastically changed. To request a species change its diet is like asking you to eat nothing but grass. Lots of grass around, the deer do it, why can't you? It's a simple change. But completely unrealistic. Please try not to think of a species in such an anthropocentric way, it's embarrassing.
@Russ Nash We logged old growth forest which is where the spotted owl has the advantage. Now the spotted owl has to adapt to the new environment (created by humans) or go extinct.
Shooting barred owls in what used to be old growth forest territory will eliminate competition and give spotted owls time to adapt or forest to grow back.
@Russ Nash Old growth forest would be the trick - that's the natural prime habitat for the spotted owls. Unfortunately, we've cut nearly all of it down.
@Guy Holder They are an invasive species. They are native to the eastern US, not the Western US.
@Guy Holder Just the stupidity of US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Somehow their notions of "helping" always seem to include killing something. Starlings, blackbirds, Canada geese, pigeons. Maybe they ought to do everybody, including the taxpayers a big big favor and just let nature sort itself out.
@Liz Anderson @Walter Mason Thank you for the feedback, Liz! Good points, I'm glad you can provide us a professional opinion on the conundrum.
Keep up the good fight, and thank you for your hard work.
@Walter Mason Also, I believe that we have an ethical obligation to at least try to repair the damage we've done to our ecosystems.
@Terri Schiavone The damage is not done. Barred owl densities are still relatively low in the southern portion of their range, but are continuing to increase as their range expands southward. Studies show that spotted owls are exhibiting declines concurrently with this expansion of barred owls. Spotted owl populations in northern California remain relatively high, but are still declining as the barred owl moves in and takes over spotted owl territories.
@carol keith The preliminary barred owl removal studies conducted in the redwood region of northern California have been very successful. When the barred owl(s) is lethally removed from territories that were previously occupied by northern spotted owls (basically the larger and more aggressive barred owl will displace spotted owls from their territories), the spotted owls were shown to almost always re-establish in their initial territories.
We're not talking about introducing an invasive species to get rid of barred owls. That would be stupid. We're talking about removing an invasive and historically non-native species from various demographic study areas in the Pacific Northwest. Barred owls will still be here, just hopefully present at lower densities; a density at which will allow the northern spotted owl to co-exist with the congeneric barred owl.
@LM Bowland studies conducted on northern spotted owl diets do suggest that they eat a wide variety of prey items including, snails, spiders, deer mice, red tree voles, small birds, flying squirrels, wood rats, etc. However, in the northern part of their range, the majority of their prey biomass comes from northern flying squirrels, which are typically found in old growth forests (hence their dependency on late-seral stage forest stands). In the southern portion of their range, spotted owls still eat a wide variety of prey items, but the majority of their prey (by biomass) is from the dusky-footed woodrat, which are typically found in greater abundances in younger forest stands. Barred owls have been found to eat a greater variety of prey items, but at lower frequencies. There is also a large overlap in the mammalian prey items of barred owls and spotted owls (referred to as exploitative competition). So even if you could "train" a spotted owl to eat many different types of prey, they would still be competing with barred owls for resources (barred owls have been shown to eat slugs, snails, birds (including small owls), crayfish, fish, skunks, small mammals, etc.). Given that the barred owl typically plays the dominant role when agnostic interactions occur with spotted owls, I do not think that diversifying their diet would increase their populations. Also, it's just not feasible or possible to train all the known spotted owls to diversify their diets. It's a ridiculous idea at the very least.
@Jonathan Hakim @Russ Nash The spotted owl may hold an advantage in the redwood region (and possibly in the Klamath region as well), because their diets are different than in the northern part of their range. They primarily rely on the dusky-footed woodrat (by biomass), which tend to occur in higher abundances in young forests. Published studies have shown that while spotted owls need larger trees for roosting and nesting, they tend to forage in somewhat fragmented (or edge) habitats (i.e. second growth next to young forests). The timberlands owned by Green Diamond Resource Company, a timber company where virtually no old growth exists, contains the highest numbers of spotted owls in Humboldt and Del Norte counties (way northern, coastal CA). In contrast, the Redwood National and State Parks, which contain almost all the remaining old growth in the same area are completely inundated with barred owls and have had very few recent detections of spotted owls).
An animal expanding it's territory isn't invasive. Animals historically adapt, move or expand as necessary. I don't know the history of this species (Barred) but It's range may have been greater 10,000 years ago. For all I know the Spotted Owl is an adaptation of the Barred.
What I do know is invasive species from Africa, Asia and Europe are the biggest threats to native animal populations in this country - impacting on countless species.
Ultimately, we are part of the biosphere. If it were up to me we would look to reduce or stabilize our population. However, the powers that be don't see it the same way. We can protect habitat. We can control pollution. We can stop hunting. But the animals are going to have to adapt - to us.
The Spotted Owl may not survive despite our efforts. There's no reason to kill thousands of Barred Owls unless and until it is determined they are a pest or pose some hazard to us
Of all the animals we could wage war on, feral hogs, asian carp, giant snails. nutria, snakehead and hundreds of others - the ones we shouldn't be shooting is a big and beautiful bird of prey. A bird that is native to our country.
Windmills and solar installations are already a threat to some of our greatest bird species - and now we've decided it's ok to shotgun the Barred Owl. Conservation isn't what it used to be.
@Roderick Mollison @Guy Holder Roderick, what you're saying is "just let everyone else interfere". Starlings, blackbirds, Canada geese, and pigeons only are doing what they're doing due to massive human interference. US FWS, in this case at least, is trying to counteract human damage, not nature's way.
1) Human facilitated invasion by the barred owl into the west (see my comments below).
2) no idea what you mean by "not so preppy barred owl." Preppy is not a biological term.
3) the spotted owl is a threatened species, so the US Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with several biologists make the final call on how to recover the spotted owl.
@Walter Mason NPR had a much better story on this topic that I think aired sometime last Jan. I feel like NatGeo dumb downs their stories quite a bit to fit a wider audience (which is quite evident after reading a lot of these people's comments).
@Michael Busby So you're saying that you want to shoot me?
@Guy Holder actually conservation used to be based around shooting animals, particularly birds, to be used as study specimens. I agree that we have many other invasive species that need to be controlled too, but that's not the point of this article. As far as the history of the barred owl goes, yes, it is closely related to the spotted owl (both in the genus strix), but they evolved in geographic isolation from one another and are therefore (genetically) considered different species. And yes, an animal that expands its territory can be considered invasive, especially when the expansion was human facilitated. The experimental or preliminary removal studies conducted in northwestern CA produced extremely positive results for the recovery of the northern spotted owl.
@Guy Holder @Jonathan Hakim If you guys can get a hold of this journel by Kent Livezey (2007) titled, "Range Expansion of Barred Owls, Part 2: Facilitating Ecological Change," I definitely recommend reading it or at least just reading the abstract. It describes the westward range expansion of barred owls as facilitated by humans from the late 1880's to the present.
@Guy Holder @Jonathan Hakim I will have to disagree. It is irresponsible to place ecological opinions based on "beauty." This is a species that would have not expanded its range if it were not for human interference. The "one biosphere" argument is a slippery slope.
It is also conceited for one species to ask every other living organism on the planet to adapt to it. That is simply unreasonable. And laughable.
If we cut out the emotional jargon, and look at the reality of the situation, then perhaps there can be a useful discussion. Look at the policy in place right now.
Once the NSO goes extinct for one reason or another, then the old growth will be logged which will impact countless other species that are relying on that habitat. It is the responsibility of the FWS to protect imperiled species and their habitat, which is no small task. It's a hard job. To do their job well, they need data. So let them conduct their study.
Feed the World
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.
Latest From Nat Geo
The moon disappeared for the second time in 2014 in a total eclipse seen early Wednesday morning in the Americas, India, and Central Asia.
Abandoned 28 years ago, the land around the failed Chernobyl power plant now teems with tourists.