Owls Killing Owls

Liberty Matters News Service


The northern spotted owls are disappearing from northwest forests in spite of the environmentalists' successful campaign to use the birds to rid the forests of loggers.

U. S Forest Service owl experts believe the growing presence of the barred owl is the reason. The situation has sent the ecologist camp into a tail-spin.

"What do you do when one species invades the range of another, especially when the other is on the endangered species list," asked Rocky Gutierrez, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Minnesota. The Audubon Society of Portland, a chief protagonist in the original spotted owl lawsuit, is trying to justify the removal of the barred owls.

"It's been the source of a lot of tension within the organization," said Susan Ash, acting conservation director. "Any time you talk about killing one species, it's difficult."

There is even argument over how the barred owls arrived on the scene.

Gutierrez thinks humans did it by "stomping out fires on the Great Plains" and letting trees grow along rivers creating an "avian highway."

The timber industry wants to know if they can harvest trees now that the spotted owls are gone and have requested a review of the situation. The study results could determine if the Bush administration will decide whether the bird deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act.


Experts ponder latest menace to the spotted owl



PORTLAND, ORE. - Loggers have long been shut out of the northern spotted owl's habitat, but the owl protected by the Endangered Species Act is still being forced from its nesting places.

But not by man - by its cousin, the barred owl.

Even with diminished logging, spotted owl numbers are crashing in parts of Washington where barred owls are numerous. In Oregon, in one region near Roseburg, almost nine of every 10 spotted owls either moved or disappeared after a barred owl came calling.

"We go back to where they were and they're just not there anymore," said Eric Forsman of the U.S. Forest Service, one of the top spotted owl researchers in the Northwest.

An analysis of the spotted owl in coming weeks is expected to outline the threat in more detail, as part of a review sought by the timber industry. It will lead to a decision by the Bush administration on whether the spotted owl remains protected.

There's talk of evicting barred owls in places, to see how spotted owls do. And the timber industry wants to know: If barred owls occupy spotted owl trees, can those trees then be cut down?

Even the Audubon Society of Portland, a bird's best friend, is conflicted. Officials there helped file the original lawsuit that halted logging to protect the spotted owl. But they have a pair of barred owls nesting on their land in Portland and, said Susan Ash, acting conservation director, "They're very cool birds."

Their hooting calls have eight notes to a spotted owl's four, probably why they are also known as "hoot owls" or "eight hooters." Their wings stretch more than three feet across. They're not as finicky about food as spotted owls, gobbling up just about anything they can catch.

Very little bothers them, except for great horned owls, their only real predator.

Audubon of Portland is trying to figure out where it stands on the idea of taking out one owl to aid another.

"It's been the source of a lot of tension within the organization," Ash said. "Any time you talk about killing one species, it's difficult. Now we happen to be talking about a very charismatic owl species."

"It's sort of a quandary," said Rocky Gutierrez, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Minnesota who has long studied spotted owls. "What do you do when one species invades the range of another, especially when the other is on the endangered species list?"

Adding confusion to the picture is the question of whether the barred owls are moving into the western forests on their own, or if they're following human development. The birds first appeared in Washington in the 1960s, Oregon in the 1970s and California in the 1980s. Their numbers have been taking off since.

"It's hard to know if we should sit back and let nature take its course, if that's really what's happening, or if we should try to step in in some way," Ash said.

Forsman, who has watched the spotted owl for decades, suspects the barred owl acted alone, moving to the Northwest like so many fleeing Californians.

Gutierrez doesn't buy the single-suspect theory. He thinks the owl had help. Perhaps by stomping out wildfires on the Great Plains, he said, people let trees grow up along rivers. They would have become avian highways west.

"It sure seems peculiar that they waited thousands of years to make this leap across the continent," he said. "I just don't think it's coincidental."

There may be at least a few thousand barred owls in the Northwest, and the number is rising. There may be as many as 8,000 pairs of spotted owls. And there are some "sparred owls," offspring of interbreeding between the two, that may further confuse things.

Biologists didn't plan on all this when they mapped out reserves for the spotted owl and other species that would become the blueprint for public forest management. But they don't fault the barred owl for taking them by surprise.

"I wouldn't put it in terms of bad or good," Gutierrez says. "I would put it as, 'Is it a threat to the spotted owl?' And the answer is yes. I think this thing is happening more quickly than people expected it would."



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