USFWS Response to the Barred Owl Threat

The barred owl was first detected within the range of the northern spotted owl (NSO) in the 1970’s.  Researchers started to become concerned about the impacts the barred owl would have on the NSO in the 1980’s.  In 1989, the USFWS acknowledged that the expansion of the barred owl population was of “considerable concern”.  The NSO was listed as threatened in 1990.  Since then, there has been a steady decline in the NSO population with a concurrent steady increase in the barred owl population.

Proportion of NSO territories occupied by barred owls, Oregon Coast Range 1990 – 2008

Since 1992, researchers estimate that the NSO as a whole is declining at an annual rate of 2.9% and in the areas most heavily impacted by the barred owl at an annual rate of 5.9%.

By 2004, the preponderance of evidence lead the team conducting a 5‐year status review to conclude “that the barred owl is a significantly greater threat to the spotted owl than originally estimated at the time of listing”.  By this time, the overall NSO population had declined by 30% from its 1992 level.

In 2008, the USFWS released the NSO Recovery Plan that identified competition from barred owls as a main threat to the spotted owl. Roughly a third of recovery actions address the barred owl threat, including consideration of measures relating to a barred owl removal experiment.  By this time, another 8% of the NSO population was lost.

In February 2009, a Barred Owl Stakeholders Group was formed as part of the scoping process for the barred owl removal experiment.  In December 2009 a formal scoping notice was issued.  The final EIS and ROD for this experiment was signed September 2013.  By this time another 9% of the NSO population was lost bringing the NSO population down to 54% of its 1992 level.

The purpose of the Barred Owl Removal Experiment (BORE) is to gather information on the effectiveness, feasibility and cost of removing barred owls to aid in the conservation of the NSO.  (Research on private lands in California and research in Canada had already shown that the NSO population and reproductive success increased as barred owls were removed.)  The BORE called for barred owl removal within four study areas distributed in Washington, Oregon and California.  There is no firm schedule for conducting this experiment only that “(R)emoval activities will end when data are sufficient to meet the purpose and need”.  A maximum duration of 10 years of barred owl removal was stated for the experiment.  At the end of this 10 years, another 13% of the NSO population will be lost.

After the BORE is completed (sometime after 2022), if they find that removing barred owls leads to an increase in NSO’s which is likely, the USFWS will then have to go through a lengthy regulatory and legal process to be able to remove enough barred owls to make a significant impact on the NSO population.  This could take yet another 10 years at which time the NSO population will only be at about 30% of its 1992 level and perhaps will be extirpated from major portions of its range.

In the meantime, the USFWS is focusing on maintaining and increasing suitable NSO habitat claiming that since the NSO population is declining so rapidly “habitat is more important than ever”.  The fallacy of this concept is that there are already hundreds of thousands of suitable NSO habitat that is devoid of any NSO’s because of the presence of barred owls.  Any new habitat that is created will be occupied by barred owls and therefore of no use to the NSO.  The result of this fixation on “habitat” as opposed to addressing the real problem is that the much needed fuels reduction and restoration work needed on our federal lands is being thwarted by the USFWS insistence on maintaining all of the existing nesting habitat and major reluctance to allow treatment of foraging and dispersal habitat.

It is understandable that the USFWS is reluctant to address the real threat to the NSO as killing barred owls at the level that would make a difference to the NSO will be met with major resistance from environmental groups and Congress is not likely to continually fund a multi-million dollar removal effort.  At the same time, they should not be allowed to impose land management restrictions that will have no impact on stopping the decline of the NSO population and only serve to show they are doing something.

-This white paper was prepared by Ross Mickey, American Forest Resource Council, 2014

USFWS Response to the Barred Owl Threat