Can Killing One Species of Owl Help Save Another?

Biologists and conservationists are grappling with a controversial plan to kill 470,000 barred owls in the Pacific Northwest over the next 30 years

Owl sitting on branch looking back at camera
Barred owls are bigger, faster to reproduce and less picky about food and habitat. Jeremy Teague via Getty Images

Should humans kill members of one bird species to help protect another? That’s the question scientists and conservationists are grappling with right now in the Pacific Northwest.

In a bid to save northern spotted owls from extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has suggested shooting more than 470,000 barred owls over the next 30 years. The agency’s proposal—which is still a draft and will remain open for public comment through January 16—has drawn criticism from some wildlife conservation groups and highlights the difficulties land managers face while trying to maintain the delicate balance of ecosystems.

Spotted owls and barred owls are closely related. But only spotted owls are native to the Pacific Northwest. Barred owls, meanwhile, are an invasive species native to eastern North America that has slowly come to dominate the region over the last century. Their larger size, more generalist nature and faster reproduction rate have primed them to outcompete spotted owls.

The species’ proliferation has come at a cost to spotted owls in the region, whose numbers have dropped by roughly 75 percent over the last 20 years, according to the USFWS. Today, scientists estimate between 3,000 and 5,200 spotted owls live on federal lands in Washington, Oregon and northern California. Barred owls, by contrast, number over 100,000 in the same area.

“The populations are really at a tipping point right now,” said Alan Franklin, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center, to Audubon magazine’s Ashley Braun in 2022. “Something has to be done quickly.”

Biologists have long pondered how to keep the barred owl population in check. In 2021, scientists published the results of an experiment that involved killing 2,485 barred owls in five study areas. Over five years, spotted owl survival rates increased by an average of 10 percent at the sites.

But to truly recover, spotted owls might need more than five years, because they are slow to reproduce. That’s the driving factor behind the agency’s recently proposed, long-term management plan that includes lethally removing hundreds of thousands of barred owls from parts of Washington, Oregon and California.

Owl sitting on branch
Northern spotted owls are struggling to compete with invasive barred owls. Greg Vaughn / VWPics via Getty Images

Government scientists argue that culling barred owls will give spotted owls the best chance of rebounding. But not everyone agrees.

“We don’t think it’s ethical to be going out and calling for barred owls and shooting them with a shotgun because they are currently doing better in the existing environment and outcompeting other species,” says Jennifer Best, wildlife law program director for the Connecticut-based animal advocacy group Friends of Animals, to NBC News’ Evan Bush.

Other conservationists are conflicted about the plan. While they understand that science may support the culling of barred owls, they worry about the ethical implications of killing off members of one species to save another. Bob Sallinger, executive director of the nonprofit Bird Conservation Oregon, describes the current moment to the Seattle Times’ Lynda V. Mapes as a “no-win, awful situation” that humans have “created for ourselves.”

“Are we going to do more harm than good?” he says to the publication. “Do we really want a bunch of people in the woods shooting at what are otherwise protected birds?”

This is far from the first controversial invasive species culling plan. In Oregon, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers killed thousands of cormorants in an effort to protect salmon in the Columbia River. In Australia, the government has proposed shooting feral horses, known as “brumbies,” from helicopters to help rebalance the ecosystem. And in Britain, scientists say that culling gray squirrels is one of the best ways to save native, threatened red squirrels.

In the case of the barred and spotted owls, biologists say the culling plan will ultimately help both types of birds thrive. They also came up with the proposal after considering other population control methods, including non-lethal removal and sterilization, but they ultimately determined those ideas would be impractical.

“Rather than choosing to conserve one bird over the other, this is about conserving two species,” says Kessina Lee, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Oregon, to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Sage Van Wing. “Spotted owls are fighting for their existence right now. Whereas, even if the service was able to remove that number of barred owls over the next 30 years, that would represent less than 1 percent of the global population of barred owls.”

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