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Scientists to study lethal removal of barred owls

  Killing barred owls is seen as possible way to aid northern spotted owl populations
< AP photo - Scientists are hoping to study whether killing barred owls, seen at left, will aid in the revival of the northern spotted owl.

  Scripps Howard News Service, Herald and News 3/8/11

     Federal scientists literally have barred owls in their sights.

   They’re hoping that blasting the birds will save their weaker cousins, the controversial spotted owls some blame for destroying the Western timber industry.  

   The scientists want to study whether “lethal removal” of barred owls, which will be killed by shotgun-toting biologists, will induce a revival of the northern spotted owl population, said Robin Bown, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist in Portland.

   The hunting trips will take biologists through the forests of Oregon and Washington.

   First discussed in a draft recovery plan for spotted owls in 2007, the experiment should be detailed in a draft environmental document to be released in the next couple of months.

   “ The question remains: Would removing barred owls improve spotted owl population?” Bown said.  Spotted owls often are blamed for collapsing the West’s timber industry. Despite almost two decades of increased protection, which led to decreased logging, the spotted owl populations remain fragile.

   Pushed out  

   Now the more aggressive barred owls a re pushing the spotted owls from their perches. Scientists fear if they’re left unchecked, the East Coast-native barred owls could snuff out their spotted cousins.

   Before 1900, barred owls were found only east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada, Bown said. Since 1900, the owls have spread into Canada, Washing ton, Oregon and California, including the north state.

   It’s unclear what triggered the territory expansion. It likely was spurred by people planting more trees across the Great Plains, Bown said. The trees created refuges for the owls as they moved west. The owls first spread to California in the 1970s.

   Taking over  

   In the West, barred owls are taking over spotted owl habitat, out-competing and even attacking the other owls.  

   “Barred owls are more intense hunters,” Bown said.

   While spotted owls are finicky, specialist hunters focused on dusky footed woodrats and flying squirrels, barred owls see the forest as their smorgasbord. Barred owls will eat crawfish, salamanders, slugs and worms, as well as rodents, Bown said.

   Their less exclusive menu is helping the barred owls thrive while the spotted owls struggle.

   That’s where the shotguns come in.

   Hope for a rebound  

   Although scientists hope killing the barred owls will help spotted owls rebound, the study also will include less dramatic measures, including the use of nets to capture barred owls. The problem with capturing the owls, Bown said, is someone needs to care for them and there are few places interested in taking in the owls.

   She said she doesn’t know how many owls will be killed for the study.

   Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have estimates of how many barred and spotted owls are in the woods, she said. Developing population estimates will be part of the study.
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