Though they are members of the same genus of owl—Strix—the two species are very different, like spots and stripes. The spotted owl is friendly, slow to reproduce, and tragically limited to a narrow ecological niche of old-growth forests.
The barred owl is a supremely adaptable generalist. It’s also a feisty breeding machine. Barred owls have been seen chasing spotted owls out of their territories, even attacking them. Then they take over.
Eric Forsman is the pre-eminent spotted owl biologist. His studies in the 1970s showing population declines and tying them to the birds’ reliance on old-growth forest catapulted the owl into national headlines. When he established his study site in Oregon’s Coastal Range, there were no barred owls. A recent study of the same site found 82 pairs of barred owls and only 15 pairs of spotted owls.
“Lots and lots and lots of ’em,” Forsman said, referring to barred owls throughout the Pacific Northwest. Biologists are convinced they’re a major competitive threat to spotted owls.
In what may ultimately be a Quixotic effort, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designed an experiment to “remove”—which basically means to shoot—barred owls from up to 21 selected areas to see if spotted owls then return.
“It’s a study, an experiment,” Robin Bown emphasized to me. She is the USFWS team leader for the project. “We want to know if removal of barred owls is even a viable management option,” she said.
A decision is due soon, perhaps this winter, on which of seven options the USFWS will choose. The most aggressive option would kill 8,953 barred owls. As Dan Ashe, the director of USFWS, put it, “We have a clear obligation to do all we can to prevent the spotted owl’s extinction.”
It’s easy to understand the desire to save the beloved and beleaguered spotted owl. Yet many people have reservations about whether and how to perform the experiment. Despite devoting his professional life to spotted owls, Forsman pointed out that, “to work, we’ll have to kill thousands of barred owls forever.” Then he added, “We should not kid ourselves. To kill barred owls to answer a scientific question when you won’t use what you learn to solve a problem, well, it’s an ethical struggle.”
Spotted owls may face another big challenge, from climate change. Warmer, wet winters and springs hurt young owl survival rates, and drier summers mean the small mammals that spotted owls eat are less abundant. Most climate change models suggest that the Pacific Northwest will experience just those conditions. That means lower population growth rates for spotted owls—or an even faster decline.
I recently visited a family of barred owls on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. Barred owls first arrived on the island in 1992. Now they’re everywhere. I found a mom and her two babies in a maple tree, huddled on a mossy branch. This particular mom produces two to three babies per year. One of her banded babies from an earlier year was found 100 miles away, on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s hard not to admire such powerful and successful birds.
Then I remembered the female spotted owl I’d seen on Mount Rainier, who may produce only one owlet every other year. What’s her future?
We’re left with a terrible choice, one that pits two handsome, charismatic, and incompatible species of owl against each other. It speaks to the complexities, and maybe also the limits, of what our management of nature is able to do.
Correction, Feb. 5, 2013: The sub-headline for this story originally asked whether the Forest Service should shoot barred owls. The responsibility for shooting them rests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.