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Who Shoots for You? Who Shoots for You’all?

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”.

Spotted Owl - USFWS Pacific

The recovery plan for the Spotted Owl is controversial. Should its range be allowed to contract or should efforts be made to keep the owl in its declining habitat?  photo from USFWS

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.

Golden Eagle - Ann Nightingale

At least six Golden Eagles were killed to protect the Vancouver Island Marmot, still the most endangered mammal in Canada.

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.

Barred Owl 2 - Ann Nightingale

The Barred Owl (Strix varia) has become the most commonly sighted owl in southwestern British Columbia even though it was a rarity just fifty years ago.

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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Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale (and yes, that is her real name) is an avid birder and amateur naturalist. A relative late-comer to birding, Ann took up the binoculars and scope in the mid 1990’s and has been making up for lost time since. Ann serves on the board of Rocky Point Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station on the southern tip of Vancouver Island (the place with the Skylarks!) She first volunteered at RPBO in 1997 and over the years has become a licensed passerine, hummingbird and owl bander. Also active with the Victoria Natural History Society, Ann leads local birding field trips and coordinates the Christmas Bird Count for the Victoria circle. Recently she has added coordination of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands for the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas to her “administrative birding” activities.
Ann Nightingale

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  • Anon

    As a lover of the wilds, I find it disturbing that this is controversial. A rabbit gives its life so that an eagle may live. Is that wanton killing? Death is a natural part of life. Who can deny that. Saving a species from extirpation and extinction, and being a steward of the wilds that are left, is a noble endeavor.

  • Matt

    The unfortunate reality is that such approaches are not sustainable long-term. Without changing the overarching ecological conditions that led to such declines, interventions like killing Spotted Owls (or, for example, pulling widespread invasive plants) will only work as long as we are willing to continue carrying them out. How long would we have to keep killing Barred Owls before the Spotted Owl population could be self-supporting without that? I suspect that it’s longer than we will actually be willing to keep carrying out such actions. I know it’s difficult to give up on conserving a species, even in a part of its range. But without restoring large areas of high-quality Spotted Owl habitat, this feels like bailing water from a boat that’s destined to sink. Our efforts and money might be better spent elsewhere (like protecting old-growth forest and other habitats).

  • Matt

    And by “killing Spotted Owls”, I of course meant “killing Barred Owls”.

  • Paul

    How long would we have to keep killing Barred Owls before the Spotted Owl population could be self-supporting without that? I think when we have enough older growth large to sustain the Spotteds, and even then I’d be ok with some maintenance. I’m of the same mind regarding invasive pants. Even restored habitats require occasional removal of invasive weeds.

  • We all like Kirtland’s Warblers, but there would be far fewer of them if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the Michigan Audubon Society, did not cull thousands of Brown-headed Cowbirds every year since 1972 near Grayling, Michigan (as well as maintain Jack Pine forests). It ain’t pretty, but this program has saved the Kirtland’s Warbler from extinction.

  • Briana

    The problem being that Barred Owls aren’t invasive. They are naturally occurring in that range. So it’s not really an accurate comparison.

  • Paul

    That is incorrect. Since the 1960s, Barred Owls have been expanding their range westward from the eastern US, because of man-made changes in the west. I think as conservationists, and even as birders, we should do all we can to set aside some areas for Spotted Owls, and manage these areas to allow Spotteds to continue to exist. Given mankind’s effect on, and ability to affect, our environment, I don’t think we can really afford to sit back and be laisez faire about ecology.

  • Paul, I live in BC and keep reading that the Barred Owl is an invasive species. This seems like a misnomer to me. It’s not that someone brought in a bunch of Barred Owls from Ontario and set them free in BC, as was the case with, for example, European starlings from Britain so many years ago. The Barred Owl gradually moved westward ALL BY ITSELF when old-growth forests in BC were logged to the point where the Spotted Owl could no longer make its home here. The problem is the logging, not the owls.

  • Paul

    Yes, I completely agree. Logging was the problem. Logging was the man-made change that allowed the Barred Owls to expand their range into traditional Spotted Owl range. But now that we humans have created the problem, isn’t the onus on us to save a little habitat for a few Spotted Owls?

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