The news came out this week that the British Columbia government authorized the culling—killing—of Barred Owls more than two years ago in an attempt to protect the endangered Spotted Owl. Needless to say, the reaction has been outrage. Sensationalized headlines have blazed across the newspapers, the story has been on every TV and radio news program, and a lot of people are understandably upset that the only owl species that they may have ever seen is the target of a government-ordered “hunt”.
BC is not alone in using this strategy; culling of Barred Owls has been going on in the US, too, according to the Associated Press. In reality, a limited number of Barred Owls, and only those within Spotted Owl territories, will be killed in BC; it’s by no means an open season on Barred Owls. Given that there are only about 10 Spotted Owls left in the wilds of BC, the number won’t be huge, but reports indicate that 39 have already been shot.
The Barred Owl is a relatively recent arrival in British Columbia, working its way from the unpopulated boreal forests of the far north to the bustling cities on the southwest coast. The first one recorded on Vancouver Island was in November, 1969, and the species has now moved well into Washington, Oregon and California. It is a generalist in terms of diet and habitat, and has truly become an urban as well as a forest owl in this part of the world. Due to its success and aggressive habits, the Barred Owl is also held at least partially responsible for the dramatic decline of the Western Screech Owl in the Pacific Northwest. To further complicate the conservation issue, the Barred and Spotted Owls can and do occasionally interbreed, especially where numbers of Spotted Owls are low.
Only one thing is clear in this debate: destruction of the Spotted Owl’s old-growth forest habitat pushed the species to the brink of extirpation in BC. A healthy Spotted Owl population might well have managed the incursion of Barred Owls into its range. What we have now is a human-caused problem. The dilemma is whether we attempt a human-caused solution or let nature take it from here. To do the latter would undoubtedly lead to the extirpation of the Spotted Owl from British Columbia, the only place in Canada where it is currently found.
We’ve been down this road before, with the Vancouver Island Marmot. Imagine the reaction when the news broke that six Golden Eagles had been shot to protect what was the most endangered mammal in the world at the time. Cougars and wolves had also been baited and killed. It was a success for the marmots. Not so much for the Golden Eagle. The Vancouver Island Marmot’s wild population has increased from 30 to more than 300 individuals since 2003. The recently completed BC Breeding Bird Atlas shows only two confirmed Golden Eagle nest sites on Vancouver Island over the past five years, although there are undoubtedly at least a couple more than reported. Does the end justify the means?
What do we do now? A captive breeding program is underway, but is just in its early days. There has been a move to protect more habitat, so there may well be sites which are suitable for Spotted Owls as their population recovers. But that habitat now has Barred Owls moving in.
If there is any good news in this story, it may be the recognition that the Spotted Owl needs appropriate habitat to survive. If the government is going to go to all this trouble to try to keep the species in the province, there will be protection of that habitat for all of its species, including 25 others currently identified as “at risk”. The recovery strategy’s managers are aiming for 125 pairs (half the historic level of 250 pairs) and each pair needs 2500 to 5000 hectares. The jury is still out on whether protection will happen, though, as the recovery plan explicitly states that it can’t have a negative effect on the timber industry. Forest habitat preservation, by its very nature, negatively impacts the timber industry!
We’re left with the double-edged sword of many conservation programs, whether it’s Ducks Unlimited properties, wildlife refuges, predator management programs or protection of endangered warblers. Have we so altered this planet that killing has become essential for many species’ survival?
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