IT’S THE HABITAT, STUPID!

1 November 2019

 

This is something that I posted on my website in 2012:

  “The northern spotted owl creeps back into the news regularly here in the Pacific Northwest, usually with a new spin on an old and still unresolved management controversy. Lately, it has been about barred owls. Apparently someone in the timber industry has just discovered that one of the spotted owls' problems is invasion of their territory by barred owls. The industry answer: we don't need to save old growth forest; we just need to get rid of barred owls. Even if the answer was that simple, it ignores a basic fact that we have known for twenty-five years or more: that the reason barred owls have been able to invade spotted owl territory is because logging has opened up and fragmented the forest so that barred owls can invade.” 

  I hadn’t heard much about the barred owl killing proposal in the years since, and I guess I thought that smarter heads had prevailed. Imagine my surprise when a 15 October 2019 story on Oregon Public Broadcasting described how more than 2,400 barred owls have been killed in the Pacific Northwest as part of a $5 million U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service program to eventually kill up to 3,600 owls. My God!

   Although barred owls and spotted owls are superficially similar – both are large, “earless” (no feather tufts) owls – ecologically, they are far apart. Barred owls are generalists. Historically, they were found throughout the eastern United States in a variety of woodland habitat from Florida to New England and west to the Great Plains. As land uses have changed across Canada and the Pacific Northwest, their natural ability to adapt has allowed them to pioneer more and more habitat. This have brought them into direct contact with spotted owls.

   In contrast to barred owls, spotted owls are specialists. They need mature coniferous forests for their shelter, food, and isolation from potential competitors and predators (like the barred owl). They have little ability to adapt to changing habitats. Vast acreages of the forests they originally inhabited have been logged and converted to early-growth areas. Even more important for their future survival, the older forests that remain have been fragmented until barely able to sustain the remaining spotted owls. At the same time, their remaining habitat has been made much more accessible to barred owls, which likely would not have been able to establish themselves in large blocks of mature coniferous forest.

   Without intervention such as the current barred owl killing experiment, the forecast is clear that barred owls will continue to increase in the Pacific Northwest, while spotted owls continue to decrease. What about with this intervention? Those currently killing the owls suggest (rather logically) that barred owl numbers have decreased in their control areas. However, their work includes only four relatively small study areas scattered through Washington, Oregon and northern California. How many million barred owls would have to be killed in the Pacific Northwest just to match the “success” in the control areas? With almost unlimited habitat available for barred owls across the United States and Canada, and with no reason to think their production and survival will decrease, how many more would have to be killed in year following just to maintain the initial results?

   In the meantime, while barred owls are being killed, nothing will be happening – and, in the short term, nothing can happen – that will increase the amount of spotted owl habitat available. They may be able to hang on in their precarious, postage stamp-sized blocks of living space, but they may not. If there is anything serious to be done for the spotted owl (and I’m not confident there is, anymore), it will involve habitat restoration, not shooting barred owls.

   Face it, the barred owl is now well-established in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. No amount of shooting is going to change that.

 

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