CORVALLIS, Ore. — If you follow Dr. Eric Forsman into the forest, you may notice he spends a lot of time calling and looking for owls that aren’t there.
Forsman, a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, has been studying the spotted owl since the late 1960s and he understands, perhaps better than anyone, the long-term prospects for this endangered species, whose population is dwindling across the west. One reason for its struggle is another owl species called the barred owl, which crossed the Rockies and first appeared in Oregon in the 1970s. It isn’t clear why the barred owl has expanded, but Forsman says one thing is obvious: wherever the barred owl appears, the spotted owl will soon vanish.
Experts say the barred owl can live almost anywhere, including suburban areas and new-growth forests. Meanwhile, spotted owls live only in old-growth forests, which have been burned and logged by humans for more than a century. The barred owls also raid the spotted owls’ food supply and sometimes even attack them directly.
“So you’re going to see spotted owls blink out almost undoubtedly if barred owls are not managed in some way,” says Paul Henson, the state supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Henson and his Portland-based staff have created a spotted-owl recovery plan. One key element of that plan is to conduct a 10-year experiment: in four areas on the west coast, including two here in Oregon, up to 3,000 barred owls will be forcibly removed by either being captured alive and relocated, or killed. Henson says removing the barred owls will allow the spotted owls to return.
“We’ve seen that when barred owls have been removed from areas where they’ve displaced spotted owls, the spotted owls very often come back,” says Henson.
But not everyone agrees with this plan. Louise Schimmel, the executive director of Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center, says while Henson’s plan could help spotted owls return, she’s uncomfortable with the idea of killing barred owls.
“Are you going to continue killing barred owls for the next ten-thousand years?” she asks.
Forsman is equally skeptical, saying, “Unless we’re prepared to shoot barred owls forever, I don’t think it’s a viable solution.”
Henson argues that the government already has long-term plans in place to protect other endangered species like snowy plovers and salmon.
“We’ve been controlling predators such as coyotes and fox that are impacting endangered species for decades,” he says, though he admits that killing them is not an easy task for biologists like him to undertake. “The alternative to not make a decision to move forward and test this is even more difficult, which is to watch the spotted owl go extinct.”
As of now, the experiment is on track to start just west of Veneta sometime next year.