Spotted Owls have lots of big problems. One is that their stands of old growth forests are dwindling due to the expansion of human development. Another is the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires destroying what habitat has not been converted to human uses. These two issues resulted in two of the subspecies of Spotted Owl being listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act and the third to be listed as a Species of Special Concern. But the Spotted Owl actually has a problem that is even bigger than those two. It is the Barred Owl. I have written previously about the conflict between Spotted Owl and Barred Owls (http://abirdingnaturalist.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/spotted-owl-vs-barred-owl/). The basic problem is that Barred Owls are expanding their range westward into the range of the Spotted Owl. Barred Owls are bigger and more aggressive than Spotted Owls, so when they compete for territories the Spotted Owls are driven out or even eaten. And if the Spotted Owl is not deprived of the territory or eaten, Barred Owls sometimes breed with Spotted Owls, so they are losing their genetic uniqueness as well.
This is a developing situation that wildlife managers, ornithologists and birders have been watching since the 1960s, and there has been a lot of discussion on what, if anything, to do. Ideas ranging anywhere from doing nothing to going out and shooting Barred Owls have been put on the table. The idea of shooting Barred Owls started in 2009 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed the idea and started asking for public comment on it. The idea was to send hunters out into areas that were known to have good populations of Spotted Owls. If a Barred Owl was detected, the hunters would use recordings to attract the Barred Owl and shoot it. There was a fair bit of public commenting on this idea, some for and some against, and then the idea dropped off the radar for most people. Well, just recently, there has been a new development. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is going ahead with the plan to shoot Barred Owls. They are proposing a four year trial period beginning in 2013. During this period, each fall (the non-breeding season) hunters will be sent out into four areas, two in Washington, one in Oregon, and one is California. The goal will be to kill 3,603 Barred Owls, and then see if Spotted Owl numbers increase. Why 3,603 specifically? I have no idea.
I have several problems with this plan, but let me get one issue that I do not have a problem with out the way first. I am not, categorically, against killing Barred Owls. I eat meat, I am even a hunter, so it is not the killing of animals that I take issue with. I am sure that others do feel that it is somehow morally wrong to kill an owl, any owl, but that is not me. From a population biology standpoint, the Barred Owl is doing really well as a species and so there is no danger at all of the species as a whole being damaged by some birds being killed. Far more than 3,000 die each year due to starvation, disease, exposure to the elements, or flying into cars or buildings or antennas.
No, my biggest problem with this plan is that it is not going to work. The Barred Owl population has been increasing in number and expanding in range pretty darn fast. To think that killing a few is going to make any kind of difference is like thinking that if you beat at the ocean with a garden rake, you will be able to hold back the tide. Every owl that is killed will be replaced by another from the expanding population. To top that off, this four year trial is going to cost around 3 million dollars. A much better use of that money would be to purchase 3 million dollars of land and set it aside as protected wilderness. This trial will also waste a lot of personnel hours that, just like the money, could be much better spent elsewhere. And that is just the money and personnel hours for the trial.
An even if this trial run is a success and does lead to a decrease in Barred Owl numbers and an increase in Spotted Owl numbers, this plan will still not work. The only way that lethal removal works is if you kill large number of individuals in a given area, and then keep doing it every year. The constant level of effort that this would require for hunting Barred Owls is simply not sustainable. To protect the Spotted Owl it would be necessary to remove Barred Owls from all, or most, of the Spotted Owl breeding areas (not just the four limited regions in the trial) and to continue doing so forever (since the moment the hunters stop, more Barred Owls will enter the protected areas). This would require vastly more time and money than anyone is actually going to have.