Federal agency plans to cull 450,000 barred owls to boost another species

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is keeping its aim trained on the barred owl, hoping an effort to cull the species could save its close genetic relative.

In a final plan released Wednesday, the agency is proposing to kill as many as 450,000 barred owls over 30 years, despite opposition from some animal welfare activists and Washington state’s top public lands official.

The plan, released in a final environmental impact statement, or EIS, is designed to prevent the extinction of the spotted owl, a threatened species that is being crowded out of its native territory by the slightly larger and faster-reproducing barred owl.

“We’re at a crossroads, and we’ve now developed the science and analyzed everything,” said Bridget Moran, a deputy state supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon. “We have to manage the barred owl. There is time to protect spotted owls, but that window is closing.”

The barred owl, common in the Eastern U.S., is not native to the West Coast. It most likely arrived only because European settlers spread west. The species was first discovered in spotted owl territory in Washington state in the 1970s.

The recent spread of barred owls has had a dramatic impact on spotted owl population in the forests along the West Coast. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates it has declined by 75% over the past two decades.

The wildlife agency’s final proposal calls for crews of professionals to broadcast a “territorial call” to attract barred owls and then to shoot them with shotguns. Public hunting of the birds would not be allowed, the proposal says.

The agency thinks spotted owls will rebound slowly if they face less competition from barred owls. In an experimental study funded by the Fish and Wildlife Service and published in 2021, spotted owls had a 10% better chance at survival in areas where barred owls were removed.

Robin Bown, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who is the agency’s barred owl strategy lead, said the management plan will not eliminate barred owls from the West Coast altogether.

“Both species will remain,” Bown said, adding that the program would eliminate only about 0.5% of the country’s barred owls.

The proposal to kill hundreds of thousands of barred owls has received a mix of criticism and support.

“Shooting hundreds of thousands of barred owls is a senseless and cruel management proposal,” said Jennifer Best, the wildlife law director for Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based nonprofit animal advocacy group that has opposed the Fish and Wildlife Service on the issue. “We will be reviewing the Final EIS and the final decision, once it comes out, to determine whether we will take legal action.”

Washington’s public lands commissioner, Hilary Franz, has questioned how much the plan will cost and whether it will have unintended consequences, calling it an “extreme solution” in a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

“There is no precedent for a successful wildlife-control program of this scale. While USFWS did not attach a cost for the plan, conservative estimates from outside sources put the cost estimate at $235,000,000 over the 30-year time horizon,” Franz wrote, adding that she was concerned the plan was “unworkable.”

(The cost estimate Franz referred to is from a retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, who is skeptical of the plan.)

Moran said that the program’s costs depend heavily on which agencies and land managers participate and that it’s not possible to estimate them yet.

Oregon’s Department of Forestry supported the final proposal, saying in a public comment that the plan acknowledged the “gravity of the proposed action and recognizes the complex threat” of barred owls.

The Fish and Wildlife Service can make a formal record of decision in a month. The barred owl is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Fish and Wildlife Service will need to seek a permit from itself to begin killing barred owls.

CORRECTION (July 3, 2024, 11:17 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the last name of a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. She is Robin Bown, not Brown.

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