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U.S. plans to save spotted owls by killing 450,000 barred owls

In an effort to save the endangered spotted owl, U.S. wildlife officials have proposed a controversial plan to kill nearly half a million barred owls. A looming question remains – can the intrinsic balance of nature be restored by tipping the scales?

According to a report from the Associated Press (AP), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strategy is meant to prop up declining spotted owl populations in Oregon, Washington state and California.

Documents from the agency reveal the plan, involving the termination of up to 450,000 barred owls over a span of three decades.

The clash of the owls

Spotted owls have been wrestling for adaptation and survival. Their larger cousins, barred owls, have encroached from the eastern U.S. into their West Coast territory, pushing them to potential extinction due to competition for resources.

Kessina Lee, the Fish and Wildlife Service Oregon state supervisor, emphasized the gravity of the situation. “Without actively managing barred owls, northern spotted owls will likely go extinct in all or the majority of their range, despite decades of collaborative conservation efforts,” said Lee.

Protective measures for spotted owls

Previous attempts to safeguard the spotted owls leaned heavily on the preservation of their native forests. These methods sparked intense discussions over logging practices but managed to curb the decline of the species to an extent. 

However, the recent proliferation of barred owls has countered these efforts significantly.

The quandary of wildlife management now asks if one bird species should be sacrificed to ensure the survival of another.

Bitter divisions and diverted strategies

With echoes of past government methods to protect West Coast salmon and warblers by eliminating their predators, the tumultuous idea of killing barred owls to save spotted ones has caused a ripple of dissent among wildlife advocates.

Critics have labeled this move as a diversion from more sustainable conservation strategies. Wayne Pacelle, the founder of Animal Wellness Action advocacy group, expressed strong disapproval.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is turning from protector of wildlife to persecutor of wildlife,” said Pacelle. He predicts the program will fail, as more barred owls will likely migrate into areas where others have been killed.

Can the strategy work?

Despite the criticism, the mass culling of barred owls is scheduled to commence next spring. Outfitted with megaphones broadcasting recorded owl calls, trained shooters will target barred owls infiltrating spotted owl habitats. 

Robin Bown, the barred owl strategy leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that approximately 4,500 barred owls have reportedly been removed since 2009.

While the plan aims to reduce the barred owl populace, complete eradication seems unlikely. Interestingly, supporters of the plan include some conservation groups. 

Steve Holmer, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy, noted that “barred owls don’t belong in the West.” He believes that reducing their numbers could pave the way for peaceful coexistence with spotted owls over the long haul.

Potential extinction of spotted owls

The proposal intends to reduce North American barred owl numbers by less than 1% annually, a relatively small amount when measured against the potential extinction of spotted owls if the issue remains unaddressed. 

Tom Wheeler, director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, suggests the plan might also benefit other West Coast species such as salamanders and crayfish, which barred owls prey on.

Yet while barred owls are seen as invaders from the East, their westward expansion could also be a natural ecological phenomenon influenced by climate change.

Opponents fear that the mass culling could disrupt forest ecosystems and inadvertently harm other species, including spotted owls. 

Waiting for a verdict

As we await the final environmental study on the proposal and the opening of a 30-day comment period, the plan highlights the contrast between conservation efforts and commercial endeavors. 

According to the AP, the proposal follows decades of conflict between conservationists and timber companies, which cut down vast areas of older forests where spotted owls reside.

With former President Donald Trump’s administration stripping habitat protections for spotted owls to support the timber industry, and President Joe Biden reinstating these protections, the conservation debate continues. 

As we anticipate these crucial decisions, we are reminded of our essential role in nurturing and safeguarding the delicate balance of our ecosystems.


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