Barred Owl Management – For the past several decades the focus on enhancing Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) populations in the West has been on preserving suitable habitat, primarily old growth forests. Audubon and many other conservation organizations were successful in protecting much of the remaining habitat of the Spotted Owl – listed as an endangered species. Conserving the Spotted Owl has been one of the most controversial and visible issues in conservation history.
This issue, enhancing the vitality and health of the Northern Spotted Owl population, has a new twist. At the very time that Spotted Owl populations have declined in the West, Barred Owls have invaded the Spotted Owl range.
The Barred Owl is a non-native species to the West, including Western Washington. It has migrated across the continent into western U.S. forests from eastern states. Where the ranges of Barred Owls and Spotted Owls overlap, the Barred Owl has proven to be a more successful competitor that adversely impacts the Spotted Owl. Spotted Owl populations in Washington have been declining at a rate of 7.3% per year. On the Olympic Peninsula, the Barred Owl has increased five-fold in the past 10 years. Biologists observe that the Spotted Owl is being pushed to higher elevations on the Peninsula because of competition from the Barred Owl, which prefers lower elevation forested areas.
In March of 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) regarding the Experimental Removal of Barred Owls to Benefit Threatened Northern Spotted Owls. At the same time, the USFWS issued a proposed Revised Critical Habitat Rule for the Northern Spotted Owl.
The OPAS Conservation Committee submitted comments on the Barred Owl DEIS to the USFWS in June, 2012.
We believe the most important aspect of the recovery of the Spotted Owl continues to be adequate habitat protection of remaining old growth forests. The 2011 federal Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl states that Barred Owl presence actually increases the need for additional habitat protection.
Of foremost concern is the proposed Revised Critical Habitat Rule for the Northern Spotted Owl that was released concurrent with the Barred Owl DEIS. Based on our initial analysis, we believe that the proposed Revised Critical Habitat Rule does a good job of utilizing the best available science to identify critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. However, we do not believe that the proposed strategies for “active management” contained in the rule are supported by the best available science. In addition, we believe that elements of the rule could substantially weaken the protections currently provided by the Northwest Forest Plan.
After careful examination of the Barred Owl DEIS, OPAS has taken the position to support a controlled, experimental, removal of the Barred Owl in order to prevent the extinction of the Spotted Owl. Our decision is based on scientific data that indicates that direct competition from an influx of the more aggressive Barred Owls into the Pacific Northwest has created a nesting decline which makes Spotted Owl recovery potentially impossible. Given the period of time it will take for old growth ecosystems to regenerate and spotted owl populations to recover, limited strategic control of Barred Owls may be necessary to prevent the Spotted Owl from going extinct. In the southwestern U.S., the Mexican Spotted Owl and Barred Owl coexist and there is a chance, that, given time, Northern Spotted owls and Barred Owls might also achieve a partitioning of the landscape and/or habitat that would allow them to coexist.
We support continued, full protection of Barred Owls under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, but are willing to concede to experimental removal only for the specific purpose of determining whether long-term lethal control of Barred Owls is warranted and practical. If the Service determines the experimental removal of Barred Owls is successful, it is important that all management strategies proposed in the DEIS are determined economically feasible.
In addition, OPAS recommends that the USFWS create a review team of independent scientists to monitor the entire experimental process and keep the public informed about the progress. This panel should monitor the lethal removal of Barred Owls to ensure humane treatment of the birds, to sustain a rigorous removal protocol, to monitor the process, and to ensure scientific transparency.
As a bird advocacy organization, killing birds is a contentious and serious ethical matter. OPAS is deeply concerned about managing one bird species for the preservation of another bird species, especially when emphasis should first be placed on protecting critical habitat for the Spotted Owl.