GRANTS PASS — Federal wildlife officials plan to dispatch hunters into forests of the Pacific Northwest starting this fall to shoot one species of owl to protect another that is threatened with extinction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today released a final environmental review of an experiment to see if killing barred owls will allow northern spotted owls to reclaim territory they've been driven out of over the past half-century.
The agency has been evaluating the idea since 2009, gathering public comment and consulting ethicists, focus groups and scientific studies. It will issue a final decision on the plan in a month.
"If we don't manage barred owls, the probability of recovering the spotted owl goes down significantly," said Paul Henson, Oregon state supervisor for Fish and Wildlife.
The agency's preferred course of action calls for killing 3,603 barred owls in four study areas in Oregon, Washington and Northern California over the next four years. The experiment requires a special permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits killing nongame birds.
The plan for saving spotted owls from extinction lists the barred owl as the No. 2 threat, after the loss of old growth forest habitat to logging and wildfire. But the Fish and Wildlife Service needs hard scientific evidence that killing barred owls will help before going forward with a long-term program.
Henson said the Northwest Forest Plan, which cut logging by 90 percent on national forests in the 1990s, has done a good job of providing habitat for the spotted owl. But the owls' numbers have continued to slide. Henson said unless barred owls are brought under control, the spotted owl in coming decades might disappear from Washington's northern Cascade Range and Oregon's Coast Range, where barred owl incursion has been greatest.
It has taken the federal government a long time to get to this point. The California Academy of Sciences killed some barred owls in spotted owl territory on the Klamath National Forest in Northern California in 2005, and the owner of some redwood timberlands in Northern California regularly kills barred owls to protect spotted owls.
The northern spotted owl is an icon of bitter disputes between the timber industry and environmentalists over the use of forests in the Pacific Northwest. Because of their dwindling numbers, the little bird was listed as a threatened species in 1990, which resulted in logging cutbacks and lawsuits. Barred owls are bigger, more aggressive and less picky about food. They started working their way across the Great Plains in the early 1900s, and by 1959 were in British Columbia. Barred owls now cover all the spotted owl's range, in some places outnumbering them as much as 5-to-1.
The preferred alternative calls for a combination of killing and capturing barred owls. Capturing owls is far more expensive and difficult, though and the Fish and Wildlife Service has found only five zoos or other facilities willing and able to take a captured barred owl, said Robin Bown, the wildlife biologist in charge of the evaluation.
Henson said the service has yet to work out details of how barred owls will be killed, whether by government hunters from the U.S. Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services, or contract hunters.
The favored method involves luring the birds with a recording of a barred owl call, then shooting them with a shotgun when they fly in to drive out the intruders.
Hunting would start this fall on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California, where the locations of barred and spotted owls are well-known, Henson said.
It will begin in fall 2014 in three other study areas made up primarily of federal land. The northernmost is in the Cascade Range near Cle Elum, Wash. Another is in the Oregon Coast Range west of Salem. The third is in the Klamath Mountains south of Roseburg.
Hunting will take place only in the fall and winter, to prevent taking birds when they are caring for their young.
— Jeff Barnard, Associated Press