PORTLAND — Federal wildlife officials looking to protect the spotted owl will likely recommend shooting the endangered species' biggest threat — a larger, more aggressive type of owl — according to a newspaper report.
Along with habitat loss, barred owls are the biggest threat to spotted owls, which are federally protected. That sets up a wrenching decision splitting wildlife biologists and environmentalists.
“There's no winner in that debate,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director with the Portland Audubon Society.
A draft environmental impact statement to be ready by summer most likely will recommend shooting the larger owls, according to The Oregonian. Over the next year, 1,200 to 1,500 barred owls in three or more study areas from Washington to Northern California might be killed under the plan.
The 2010 spotted owl recovery plan, to be released in mid-February, concluded “barred owl removal should be initiated as soon as possible.”
A Fish and Wildlife Service group was drafting a parallel environmental impact statement on killing barred owls.
The plan has its opponents.
“Population dynamics between two native species should not be artificially manipulated,” said Blake Murden, wildlife and fisheries director for Port Blakely Tree Farms in Tumwater, Wash. The company agreed in 2009 to manage 45,000 acres as spotted owl habitat in exchange for protection from additional logging restrictions.
Murden said the population of barred owls expanded rapidly because they adapt well to mixed habitat and eat a variety of prey. Spotted owls, on the other hand, prefer old-growth to nest and mostly eat flying squirrels.
The spotted owl is a conservation icon. Its 1990 listing as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act was the first to have such broad economic, social and environmental impact.
Owl habitat and prey in Oregon and Washington are quite different, said Lowell Diller, a biologist with Green Diamond Resource Co., which owns 400,000 acres of timber adjacent to Redwood National Park.
He said choosing to control barred owl population is one of the biggest conservation dilemmas the Northwest faces.
“We have a huge amount of resources committed to protecting that species,” Diller said. “Then we have the barred owl show up.”
Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson called the proposal to shoot barred owls an example of “dysfunctional” forest policy. Counties like his depend economically on federal timber, which Robertson said is managed to benefit a species that can't be recovered.
“When nature takes a turn, it's going to prevail no matter what we try to do,” he said. “I've come to the conclusion that it's nonsense to shoot one species to benefit another. I don't think the public will accept it.”
Logging reductions undoubtedly saved habitat, but the bird itself hasn't shown signs of recovering. Spotted owl population estimates are vague, but studies indicated it declines 3 percent annually in much of its range.
Some scientists estimate that a couple thousand mating pairs remain.
“We certainly don't want barred owls killed, but the highest priority has to be placed on not having spotted owls go extinct,” said Sallinger, with the Portland Audubon Society.
He argued logging weakened spotted owls to the point barred owls could expand rapidly. Amending habitat loss is the first step in rebalancing the playing field, he said.
“Going out and killing barred owls, if you haven't taken the other necessary steps, would be really horrific.”
A northern spotted owl sits in a tree in the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman in 2003. Federal wildlife officials are considering a plan to kill the larger barred owl in an effort to save endangered spotted owls.