According to the USFWS, the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) population has declined 52% since 1992.  At its current rate of decline, another 25% will be lost in the next 20 years even though the amount of suitable habitat is expected to increase significantly.  The cause of the NSO decline is the invasion of the barred owl whose population has exploded since 1990 and continues to increase.  Even though the USFWS only recently formally listed the barred owl as a threat to the NSO, their potential impact has been recognized for almost 40 years.

The barred owl was first detected within the range of the NSO in the 1970’s.  In the 1980’s, researchers started to become concerned about the impacts the barred owl would have on the NSO.  In 1990 when the NSO was listed as threatened, the USFWS acknowledged that the expansion of the barred owl population was of “considerable concern.”

By 2004, the preponderance of evidence led 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.  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. 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.

The experimental design called for a total of 3,603 barred owls to be removed from four study areas.  After four years, only 978 have been removed.  At the current rate, it will take an additional 5 years from what was originally planned where another 7% of the population will be lost.

After the experiment is completed (sometime after 2027), 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 develop a barred owl removal plan.  This could take yet another 10 years at which time the NSO population will only be at about 25% of its 1992 level and perhaps will be extirpated from major portions of its range.

The adoption of a plan, however, does not mean the plan will actually be implemented.  To implement the plan, it will have to withstand lengthy legal challenges from opposing environmental groups and if successful, convince Congress to allocate millions of dollars every year to carry out the plan.  In the 20-30 years it will take to maybe start barred owl removal, the spotted owl will have already become extinct throughout much 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.

It should be obvious that to only practical solution to ensuring that the NSO will continue to exist in the wild is to identify refuges across its range that could be maintained through barred owl removal at a level acceptable to the public and Congress.  A captive breeding program should also be started to ensure there sufficient genetic diversity is maintained if NSO’s need to be reintroduced where they have been totally displaced by the barred owl.  These efforts should begin now rather than waiting another 30 years at which time the NSO will be extinct in much of its range. -Ross Mickey