Can We Save the Northern Spotted Owl by Killing Barred Owls?

photo by M. Nichols

The Northern Spotted Owls are disappearing from Oregon’s forests.


Twenty years after the landmark ruling that eliminated logging on millions of acres of National Forest in order to preserve habitat of the endangered Northern Spotted Owl, those same Spotted Owls are now critically threatened by, of all things, other owls.

Over the past fifty years, for reasons still unknown, Barred Owls have progressively encroached into territory once dominated by the Northern Spotted Owl; indeed, they already greatly outnumber the Spotted throughout most of its historic  range. The Barred Owls—which share a genus (Strix) with the Spotted—are larger, more aggressive, more adaptable, more competitive, and have been known to attack and kill their smaller cousins. (Interestingly enough, because they’re so closely related, the two can produce fertile offspring, the somewhat incestual result having been unofficially dubbed Sparred Owls.)

In conjunction with historic and ongoing habitat loss, Barred Owls now represent the most critical threat to the survival of the Northern Spotted Owl.

photo by Miriam Bauman

Concerned that the Spotted Owl is likely to go extinct in substantial parts of its historic range without managing Barred Owl populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on “experimental removal” of encroaching Barred Owls. The draft EIS outlines eight potential courses of action (including one option to take no action) varying by location, duration, removal method, and cost. However, most of the options involve killing Barreds.

The thing is, no matter how ardently the Fish and Wildlife Service strives to present its studies and policy options in the most objective of ways, killing owls is an ethical issue that Oregonians will have to digest according to their individually subjective values.

For example, should we simply throw up our hands and see what happens between the two owls—let nature take its course? Or is it our responsibility to attempt to manage and mitigate the situation? Is it acceptable to kill Barred Owls if, indeed, they were able to invade Spotted Owl territory because of human-influenced land changes, as many believe? Would it be acceptable to kill them if they managed to migrate into these areas purely on their own, most natural of accords? And how long would the “removal” program take place? A few years? A few decades? Indefinitely? Or is killing Barred Owls an unjustifiable act no matter what, even if they cause the extirpation and possible extinction of the Northern Spotted Owl? Is the killing made more justifiable by the fact that, in the worst case, we’d only be affecting 0.2 percent of the Barred Owl’s current North American range? Or is it wrong to slaughter up to 8,953 feathered woodland creatures regardless? But what if these feathered woodland creatures were actually aggressively killing other, arguably cuter, feathered woodland creatures that we’ve already spent two decades and untold millions of dollars protecting?

It’s all rather complicated.

But before you get too worked up over this, one way or another, keep in mind that no one is shot gunning owls yet. This is a draft of a proposed study to determine an eventual course of action. The Fish and Wildlife Service realizes the “scope and controversy” of this issue, and carefully noted in the draft EIS that:

“We have no specific direction for future management at this time, nor would the results of this study trigger any automatic actions. Future decisions could range from no active management of barred owls to a mix of strategies, including barred owl removal, other methods to reduce barred owl populations, or methods to change the competitive advantage of barred owls. Even if removal of barred owls is chosen as a component of barred owl management, this could range from small removal efforts in specific areas and over short time frames to landscape-level removal efforts for long periods, periodic removal programs, or other actions as yet not described.”

Still, this is worth mulling over. This is happening on our public lands. Let your voices be heard.

The Fish and Wildlife Service welcomes comments on the proposed EIS before June 6, 2012, in any one of the following ways:

  • Email:
  • U.S. mail: Paul Henson, Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, 2600 SE 98th Ave., Suite 100, Portland, OR 97266.
  • In‐Person drop‐off, viewing, or pickup: Call (503) 231‐6179 to make an appointment during regular business hours to drop off comments or view received comments at the above address.
  • Fax: Paul Henson, 503‐231‐6195, Attn.: Barred Owl Draft EIS.