US Government Wants Hunters to Shoot 500,000 Owls

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants hunters to shoot more than 500,000 barred owls to help protect other native species.

Barred owls are an invasive species in the Pacific Northwest, originating on the U.S. East Coast, and they pose a huge threat to native protected species, including northern spotted owls.

As part of a draft management plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wants to cull these invasive owls, and hopes to enlist hunters to shoot half a million of them over the next 30 years.

Barred owls have been in the Pacific Northwest since the 1950s, and they now outnumber northern spotted owls across Washington, Oregon and California. They pose such a threat to northern spotted owls as they are more aggressive and have a more varied diet, eating anything from insects and amphibians to fish and other birds. They are also larger and more territorial than the native owls, meaning that they displace the northern spotted owls, disrupting their nesting, competing with them for food, and even attacking them when they come too close.

In areas where barred owls are present in higher numbers, northern spotted owl populations are declining rapidly. They are now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, with populations having declined by between 35 percent and 80 percent over the last 20 years.

“They have dramatic impacts on northern spotted owl populations. A recent study found that northern spotted owl populations in areas that received experimental Barred owl control (removal) declined at an average rate of 0.2 percent per year, whereas northern spotted owl populations in areas that did not receive barred owl control declined at an average rate of 12.1 percent per year,” Jeffrey R. Dunk, a conservation lecturer at Humboldt State University, told Newsweek. “The former rate of 0.2 percent is essentially a stable population, but a population declining at a rate of 12.1 percent per year is dramatically declining. If that 12.1 percent rate of decline was maintained, a population would be reduced by half in only 5.7 years, and half again in another 5.7 years. Essentially, the difference in these rates represents the impacts of barred owls on northern spotted owls.”

Meanwhile, there are now over 100,000 barred owls in the northern spotted owls’ territory across Washington, Oregon and Northern California. They are also slowly moving south and into the territory of California’s spotted owls, which are also facing population declines.

To save northern spotted owls from the barred owl onslaught, the FWS said in a draft environmental impact statement that they plan to initially cull around 20,000 of the owls in the first year, followed by 13,397 birds a year in the first decade, 16,303 a year in the second, and 17,390 birds each year in the third decade. This is due to start possibly as early as 2025.

“Debate over ‘best’ option(s) for recovery planning/actions is a BIG topic. Culling barred owl is one option, but needs to go hand-in-hand with habitat protection,” Jared Hobbs, a senior biologist and ecological consultant, told Newsweek. “The US Endangered Species Act (ESA) motivated the Pacific Northwest Forest Management Plan and essentially ceased logging Spotted Owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest. In BC/Canada we have the federal Species-at-Risk Act (SARA) but the provincial government is negligent in its duties to comply with legal requirements for protection of Critical Habitat (CH) under SARA.”

“This is the most important of three ‘pillars’ (habitat protection, barred owl control and captive breeding). To define ‘best’ is impossible; all three are necessary at this point as spotted owl populations have been so heavily impacted by forestry/logging that recovery without barred owl management is less likely,” he said.

The plan details that landowners or land managers could apply for a permit to kill the owls, and that a large-bore shotgun would be the choice weapon, to be substituted for capture and euthanasia when people are close.

Not everyone supported the plan, however.

“Are we going to do more harm than good? Do we really want a bunch of people in the woods shooting at what are otherwise protected birds?” Bob Sallinger, executive director of Bird Conservation Oregon, told the Seattle Times. “I nearly always opposed these sorts of programs.

“I do put the highest priority on preventing extinction, and there is science that shows us this is probably necessary. But this is really a no-win, awful situation we created for ourselves. It is appalling we have to consider these kinds of measures, and incredibly sad.”

Experts are confident that this program will successfully protect the spotted owls, however, as studies have found that killing barred owls stabilized spotted owl populations. The management plan hopes to only eradicate around 30 percent of the total barred owl population, which should be enough to take the pressure off the spotted owls.

“We know we can’t fully eradicate them, but we know we can create [refuge] areas with much lower barred owl density that allows spotted owls to survive and thrive,” Kessina Lee, state supervisor for the Oregon office of FWS, told the Seattle Times.

“We know we can make a difference. Can it be done? The answer is yes,” Lee said.

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This article by Jess Thomson was first published by Newsweek on 7 December 2023. Lead Image: A file photo of a barred owl. Thousands of these invasive owls are set to be culled to protect native species. ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS.

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