YAKIMA — In California, 26 barred owls have been shot during the fall, the first step in an experiment to see if killing these nonnative owls will support the recovery of their threatened cousin, the northern spotted owl.
Next fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plans to expand the removal experiments to three other sites in the Pacific Northwest, including the Cle Elum area.
USFWS spokesman Brent Lawrence said Friday that the removal is being done in fall and winter so as not to interfere with the barred owls’ nesting season.
The ongoing removal on the Hoopa Reservation near Arcata, Calif., will continue until February, Lawrence said, giving the biologists who shoot the owls a chance to test their methods before expanding to other sites next year.
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Spotted-owl populations have been declining for decades, and they are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The loss of old-growth forest habitat was considered the primary cause for the owls’ decline, but the increasing numbers of barred owls, native to the eastern half of the U.S., could be contributing as well.
The plan is to remove about 3,600 birds over the next four years. The $3 million plan was approved in September. USFWS biologist Robin Bown said at the time that the study is designed to see if competition from the more-aggressive barred owls for food and other resources is contributing to the spotted owls’ decline.
“This is not something the Fish and Wildlife Service does lightly. We don’t like the idea of going out and having to kill this beautiful bird,” Bown said in September. “But we don’t like the idea of the spotted owl going extinct, either. We’re between a rock and a hard place.”
But not everyone agrees that removing barred owls is the right way to help. The Seattle Audubon Society believes the focus should remain on habitat preservation, and an animal-rights group is hoping to stop the experiment in federal court.
Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit arguing that permits for killing barred owls issued under the Migratory Bird Act are invalid because the act allows for scientific collection of a species to better understand that species, not to help another one.
Whether or not the experiment moves ahead in Cle Elum and elsewhere next fall could depend on the decision in that case.