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Animal welfare group unveils plan to kill 450,000 owls to protect another species

Animal welfare group unveils plan to kill 450,000 owls to protect another species

To save the endangered spotted owl from extinction, U.S. conservationists are embracing a controversial plan to use trained marksmen to kill nearly half a million spotted owls that are crowding out their smaller cousins.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s strategy released Wednesday aims to bolster declining spotted owl populations in Oregon, Washington state and California, The Associated Press obtained advance details.

Documents released by the agency show that up to 450,000 tawny owls may have been shot in the past three decades after the eastern U.S. birds overran the territory of two West Coast owls: the northern spotted owl and the California spotted owl.

The smaller spotted owls cannot compete with the invaders, which have larger broods and require less space to survive than spotted owls.

Killing Owls
The barred owl is heading west, endangering the smaller spotted owl (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

Previous efforts to save spotted owls have focused on protecting the forests where they live, leading to bitter battles over logging but also helping to slow the birds’ decline. The proliferation of spotted owls in recent years is undermining that previous work, officials said.

“Without active management of the barred owl, northern spotted owls are likely to become extinct throughout all or most of their range, despite decades of concerted conservation efforts,” said Kessina Lee, Oregon State Supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The idea of ​​killing one bird species to save another divides opinion among conservationists and activists.

Some have reluctantly accepted the plan for the tawny owl, while others say it is a reckless distraction from necessary forest conservation.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is going from being a protector of wildlife to a persecutor of wildlife,” said Wayne Pacelle of the advocacy group Animal Wellness Action.

He predicted the program would fail because the agency would be unable to prevent more tawny owls from migrating into areas where some are already extinct.

Officials said the shootings were likely to begin next spring.

Owls with a stripe were lured with megaphones to broadcast recorded owl calls, then shot with shotguns. Carcasses were buried on site.

According to Robin Bown, chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s tawny owl strategy, researchers are already killing the birds in some spotted owl habitats, with about 4,500 removed since 2009.

Among the victims are the tawny owls in the Sierra Nevada region of California, which have only recently arrived and authorities want to prevent the population from expanding.

In other areas where the tawny owl is more common, authorities are trying to reduce its numbers, but they acknowledge that shooting owls is unlikely to lead to complete eradication of the species.

Sponsors include the American Bird Conservancy and other conservation organizations.

Barred owls don’t belong in the West, said Steve Holmer of the Bird Conservation Society. Killing them is unfortunate, he added, but reducing their numbers could allow them to coexist with spotted owls in the long run.

“If the old forests are allowed to grow again, coexistence will hopefully be possible and we may not have to do as much,” says Holmer.

The killings would reduce the owl population nationwide by less than 1 percent, officials said, comparable to the potential extinction of the spotted owl if the problem is not addressed.

Public hunting of owls would not be allowed. The Wildlife Service would designate government agencies, landowners, American Indian tribes or corporations to carry out the killings.

Shooters must provide documentation showing they have training or experience in owl identification and with firearms.

The publication in the coming days of a final environmental study on the proposal will open a 30-day comment period before a final decision is made.

Researchers say the tawny owls migrated west via two routes: through the Great Plains, where settlers planted trees that gave them access to new areas, or through Canada’s boreal forests, which have become more hospitable due to rising temperatures caused by climate change.