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Experiment Would Sacrifice One Owl For Another

December 10, 2009

A new experiment by federal biologists will try to determine if killing the aggressive barred owl that has invaded old growth forests of the Northwest would help the spotted owl, which is protected, The Associated Press reported.

A formal study from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether the experiment is plausible and will set the terms for how it is to be carried out.

The study will be available for public comment and is expected to be completed by fall 2010.

Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Bown, who is overseeing the evaluation, said the study would be done experimentally so they can nail down whether, in fact, removing barred owls could improve spotted owl demographics.

As environmentalists forced the federal government to cut back logging on Northwest national forests, the spotted owl went from a seldom-seen denizen of old growth forests to the cover of Time magazine in the 1990s.

However, spotted owls continue to decline despite the cutbacks, and populations are rapidly decreasing where there are high populations of more aggressive barred owls that are native to eastern North America.

But a small-scale experiment with killing barred owls in northern California in 2005 created controversy.

In other areas of the West Coast, ravens are poisoned to protect threatened snowy plovers.

Bown said Fish and Wildlife experts held meetings with interest groups to consider the ethical and moral implications of a larger experiment, and secured their agreement to look into certain possibilities.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Portland Audubon Society, who took part in the ethical discussion, said there is a range of opinions among scientists and interest groups.

“We are still struggling with where we come down,” he explained.

Sallinger said the highest priority should be placed on avoiding extinction, but unless habitat protections continue for old growth forests where the spotted owl lives, “killing barred owls is not going to accomplish anything.”

Barred owls are believed to have migrated from eastern Canada across the Great Plains in the early 1900s, using forests that popped up as people controlled wildfires and planted trees around farms.

The species arrived in Washington in 1973, and over the past decade their numbers have taken off.

The larger and more aggressive barred owls drove spotted owls to marginal territories, sometimes mating with them and sometimes killing them.

Controlling barred owls was a central strategy of the Bush administration’s overhaul of the spotted owl recovery plan to make way for more logging.

However, that plan was challenged in court by environmental groups and is being reconsidered by the Obama administration.

Bown said Fish and Wildlife is considering doing the experiment in existing spotted owl study areas near Cle Elum, Wash.; the Coast Range of Oregon; and the Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon.

She said the work could involve trapping or killing barred owls in half the area and comparing the reaction of spotted owls there to those in the area still beset by barred owls.

She said if they do decide to remove them, a shotgun would probably be the method of choice, because it is most reliable.

“There will be very strict conditions to have close to a 100 percent kill rate. We don’t want to be wounding animals. We don’t want to be teaching them. And we don’t want to be removing nontarget species,” she added.

Fish and Wildlife will be taking public comments until Jan. 11 on what should be considered in the study.

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