Judge clears barred owl removal study
AP Photo/The Herald,
Barton Glasser, File A barred owl is shown in this
2004 file photo. A federal judge has approved an
experiment in which barred owls will be killed to
allow the northern spotted owl population to
A barred owl removal
study doesn't violate environmental laws, a federal judge
Killing barred owls to study the
potential effects on threatened spotted owls does not violate
federal environmental laws, according to a federal judge.
Populations of the northern spotted
owl, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act, have
continued to decline in recent decades despite strict limits on
Federal scientists believe the
problem is partly due to the barred owl, a rival species that’s
more adaptable, occupies similar habitats and competes for food.
In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service authorized an experiment to remove 3,600 barred owls
over four years, typically by shooting them, to see if spotted
owl recovery improves.
Friends of Animals and Predator
Defense, two animal rights groups, filed a complaint last year
accusing the agency of violating the National Environmental
Policy Act by failing to evaluate alternatives to lethal removal
of barred owls.
They also claimed the Fish and
Wildlife Service’s study is contrary to the Migratory Bird
Treaty Act, under which the U.S. and other countries agreed to
protect migratory birds.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken has
rejected these arguments, finding that the agency wasn’t
obligated to undertake other “recovery actions” for the spotted
owl that didn’t call for removal of barred owls.
The agency took a sufficiently
“hard look” at the study’s effects, including the possibility
that it may disrupt an “equilibrium” between the two owl species
in some areas, Aiken said.
The experiment also falls within an
exception to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which permits birds
to be killed for “scientific research or educational purposes,”
From the Fish and Wildlife
Service’s perspective, the judge’s opinion validates the
significant amount of time and effort the agency spent studying
the issue, said Robin Bown, biologist for the agency.
“I think we made our case,” she
said. “We feel we did very inclusive work on this.”
The plaintiffs are still undecided
whether to challenge Aiken’s ruling before the 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals, said Michael Harris, director of Friends of
Animals’ wildlife law program.
Habitat loss remains the primary
culprit for the decline of spotted owls, he said. “The amount of
old growth habitat hasn’t increased.”
Spending millions of dollars by
shooting barred owls in the Northwest year after year isn’t
feasible but it is cruel to the birds, Harris said.
It’s possible that the two owl
species will find niches and coexist over time, he said.
Fish and Wildlife officials are
rushing to judgment to blame barred owls to escape making tough
decisions about forest management, Harris said. “You’re just
taking a shortcut by scapegoating the barred owl.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
disagrees with this perspective.
Biologists initially hoped the two
species would be able to occupy different habitats, but the
barred owl has consistently invaded the spotted owl’s territory
since the 1970s, said Bown.
As soon as the barred owl took over
riparian areas, it “began marching up the hillsides” to upland
territory favored by the spotted owl, she said.
“There is no evidence of any
environment where spotted owls can outcompete barred owls,” Bown
While the removal study costs $1
million a year, that includes costs related to the scientific
analysis, she said.
“When you’re doing a study, it
costs more than operational activities,” she said.
If removal proves effective at
protecting spotted owls, other less-costly methods of
controlling the barred owl’s population growth may become
available in the future, Bown said.
So far, 71 barred owls were removed
during the first year of the study and 54 were removed during
the second year, both at a site in Northern California.
The Fish and Wildlife Service
expects the removals to begin in at least two new sites in
Oregon and Washington during the autumn of 2015.
Data collected during the first two
removal periods is insufficient to indicate whether the removals
are helping spotted owls, Bown said. “It’s hard to look for a
trend with only two points.”
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