Home News They shoot owls in California, don’t they?

They shoot owls in California, don’t they?

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In the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, the northern spotted owl, a rare and vulnerable subspecies of the spotted owl, is being squeezed out of its limited habitat by the barred owl, its larger, cantankerous Northeastern relative. out. For more than half a century, opportunistic barred owls have been migrating across spotted owl territory, competing with locals for food and space, outnumbering and reproducing, and inevitably driving them out of their nests. Barred owls also pose a threat to the California spotted owl, a closely related subspecies found in the Sierra Nevada and coastal and Southern California mountains.

The northern spotted owl population has declined by up to 80 percent over the past two decades as it crowds marginal areas and is plagued by wildfires. Only 3,000 remain on federal lands, compared with 11,000 in 1993. In the wilderness of British Columbia, the northern spotted owl has disappeared; only one remains, a female. If this trend continues, the northern spotted owl could become the first owl subspecies to become extinct in the United States.

To save the northern spotted owl from oblivion and protect the California spotted owl population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to cull an alarming number of barred owls across 11 to 14 million acres in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California’s barred owls. (which the agency considers invasive) are invading.this lethal management plan Calls for up to 500,000 barred owls to be eradicated over the next 30 years, or 30% of the population to be wiped out during this period. The cheapest and most effective methods will be used to eliminate the owls, from large-bore shotguns with night vision goggles to capture and euthanization.

Karla Bloem, executive director of the International Owl Center in Minnesota, is ambivalent about the prospect of killing one species to protect another. “The idea of ​​shooting birds is a terrible idea – no one wants that,” she said. “But none of the alternatives work, and so far there are no other viable options. Extinction is a forever thing.”

Bob Salinger, executive director of BirdLife Oregon, agreed, but stressed that culling must be paired with the restoration and protection of the few remaining old-growth forests. “The science is clear that if the northern spotted owl is to have a chance of survival, habitat must be protected and increased, and some level of barred owl removal must occur,” he said.

The plan, which was outlined last fall by the agency in a draft report assessing its environmental impact and is due for final review this summer, has pitted conservationists against animal advocates who say the plan would benefit both species, while animal advocates argue the proposed scale, scope and timeline are unsustainable. .

Last month, a coalition of 75 wildlife conservation and animal welfare organizations sent a letter Interior Secretary Deb Haaland urged her to repeal what they called an “extremely reckless action” that would require a permanent culling program to control the barred owl population. Wayne Parcelle, president of Animal Health Action and one of the statement’s authors, said it’s dangerous for governments to start regulating competition and social interactions among North American species, including those that have expanded their ranges in part due to “human disturbance.” species. ” environment. “I don’t see how it can succeed politically because of its high price and huge ambitions,” he said in an email. “

Mr. Pacelle questioned whether the barred owl, which is native to North America, actually meets the criteria for an invasive species. “This ‘intrusive’ language is familiar to me in our current political debate,” he said. “Demonizing immigrants makes draconian policy choices much easier from a moral perspective.”

The signatories argue that the current predicament requires non-lethal control and that the agency’s approach will result in the wrong owls being shot and the deaths of thousands of hawks, eagles and other creatures from lead poisoning. “Implementing a decades-long program to release countless ‘hunters’ in sensitive forest ecosystems is an example of single-species myopia in wildlife control,” the letter said.

Wildlife ecologist Rocky Gutierrez, who has studied spotted owls since 1980, called the letter disingenuous. “It seems clear to me that the authors either did not understand the plan or did not read it carefully,” he said. “Secretary Haaland may not be swayed by their arguments, which are often incorrect or based on non-science.”

Dr. Gutierrez pointed out that the government draft explicitly bans the use of lead and other toxic ammunition and that the agency plans to recruit not hunters but trained experts who will need to take courses and pass tests.

“There have been no instances of misidentification as a result of training and strict protocols that minimized the possibility of misidentification,” Dr. Gutierrez said. Results from five years of field experiments Published in 2021. “Several major peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of this removal method.”

Ms. Blom of the International Owl Center added: “Spotted owl research is one of the most rigorous sciences on the planet because it has so many foundations. This management plan is no exception.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to save the spotted owl for decades. The effort became a sensation in the 1980s because environmentalists saw it as a way to force the U.S. government to drastically reduce logging in federal forests in the northwest. These birds rely on old-growth woodlands, preferring tall trees such as Douglas firs, which typically take 150 to 200 years to mature.

Despite strong opposition from the timber industry, the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. As loggers staged protests, dead owls were nailed to road signs and “owl stew” appeared jokingly on restaurant menus. Four years later, the Northwest Forest Plan established a new management framework for 24 million acres of federal forest lands within the northern spotted owl’s range in Washington, Oregon and California. Despite significant reductions in logging, the bird’s population continues to decline, particularly in areas where barred owls are most densely populated.

In the early 1900s, as European settlers transformed the Midwestern landscape from prairie to patches of woodland, barred owls began migrating westward. Perhaps due to warming trends in boreal forests in eastern Canada and northern Minnesota, barred owls became more abundant, and these birds spread throughout the Great Plains, and by 1943 northern spotted owls were found in British Columbia.

“When the spotted owl was listed in 1990, people knew the barred owl could be a potential threat,” said David Wiens, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “But at the time “We know very little about barred owls and what their population trajectory is in the Pacific Northwest.”

At first glance, it’s easy to mistake a spotted cat for a striped cat: Both have round, hairless heads, teddy bear-like eyes, and mottled brown and white bodies. They can interbreed to produce chicks known as “spotted owls.” But their habitat requirements are different. As many as four pairs of barred owls can occupy the 3 to 12 square miles required by one pair of spotted owls, and barred owls will aggressively defend their territory. “The closer spotted owls live to barred owls, the less likely the spotted owls are to have offspring,” Dr. Wiens said. Barred owls also have four times as many offspring.

Spotted owls are very picky eaters: in California, they only eat flying squirrels and wood rats. “Barred owls eat everything,” Ms. Blom said, “which is difficult for western screech owls, rare reptiles and amphibians, and has a knock-on effect on the ecosystem.”

Some animal activists have suggested that instead of shooting barred owls, the Fish and Wildlife Service should try to prevent them from reproducing. But Eric Forsman, a retired Forest Service biologist whose research informed the Northwest Forest Plan, counters that all other options are on the table. “Half-baked methods such as sterilization and egg removal are unlikely to achieve the scale needed to reduce numbers,” he said.

Another longshot is relocation, which could bring the risk of new parasites and diseases from the West entering the barred owl’s historical range. “If people were complaining about the cost and feasibility of moving 15,000 chickens a year, the price of the move would probably give them cardiac arrest,” Dr. Gutierrez said. “Besides being too time-consuming, you’d be moving the owls to Where? No one wants them.” He added that you could “let nature take its course,” but that would be extinction for the spotted owl.

Three years ago, researchers released the results of a pilot program that cautiously culled 2,485 barred owls at five study sites on the West Coast. The birds are lured by recordings of their calls, which causes spotted owls in the wild to retreat and remain silent to avoid detection.

Dr Wiens, who helped conduct the experiment, said more than five years of efforts to cull barred owls had halted the decline of spotted owl numbers. In areas that are not cleared, spotted owl populations decline by about 12% each year.

Ms Blom provided a “successful precedent” for the government’s OWL programme. In the 1970s, the Fish and Wildlife Service saved the Kirtland’s warbler from extinction by trapping brown-headed cowbirds in Michigan, although the warbler’s population did not increase in the nearly 20 years after trapping began.

“It would make sense to focus efforts on the front lines of the barred owl invasion every year or every few years in California and the few remaining areas in Washington and Oregon,” Ms. Blom said. Probably successful.” The best hope, she added, is the California spotted owl, which has not yet been fully penetrated.

Dr. Forsman is less optimistic. He worries that attempts to control barred owls may fail because the bird’s range has expanded too widely. To him, the proposed policy is a call to action based on the “untestable” assumption that humans are responsible for expansion.

If we were irresponsible, would we make the same call to action? he wanted to know. “Or even if we are, are we at some point admitting that we’ve screwed things up so much that we can never get back to the good old days?” he said. “I’m torn by this dilemma and I find it hard to be angry with anyone on either side of the argument.”

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