U.S. Proposes to Save Spotted Owl With Chainsaws and Shotguns

A northern spotted owl.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today formally proposed several actions, some of them controversial, to aid the iconic northern spotted owl, an endangered species in the Pacific Northwest whose population continues to shrink. The proposals include designating more critical habitat, encouraging logging to prevent forest fires, and an experiment to shoot a competing owl species.

The northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) ran into trouble in the 1980s as its old-growth forest was severely logged in Oregon and Washington. Even though destruction of its habitat slowed dramatically after the owl was placed on the endangered species list in 1990, its numbers have continued to decrease by an average of 3% a year. A major problem is competition from barred owls, which have invaded its territories.

Today's proposals come from a recovery plan for the owl, released last summer by FWS. The announcement adds more detail and begins the process of creating a formal rule that the agency expects to finalize by November. In its draft, the agency proposes to increase—perhaps nearly double—the current 2.2 million hectares designated as critical habitat, although the agency is keen to exclude private and state lands. The first step is an economic impact analysis of designating critical habitat in various places, along with public comment on the plan.

"We must move forward with a science-based approach to forestry that restores the health of our lands and wildlife and supports jobs and revenue for local communities," Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar said today during a teleconference with reporters.

In a change from current policies, FWS will encourage so-called active management of owl habitat, such as thinning forests that face a high risk of burning. A Presidential Memorandum released today directs the agency to clearly inform timber companies and landowners how they will be able to log critical habitat. "The science is telling us that unmanaged, fire-prone forests aren't healthy for either the landscape or the spotted owl," said FWS director Daniel Ashe at the teleconference.

Some say the emphasis on logging is premature. Ecologist Dominick DellaSala, director of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, emailed Science Insider: "FWS has chosen the best science in designating critical habitat urgently needed by owls; however, this is not a hands-off approach as it encourages untested 'ecoforestry' approaches that allow logging inside designated habitat units without the benefit of a single study on the impacts to owls or hundreds of other species that depend on mature and old-growth forests."

FWS also released a draft environmental impact statement that describes how the agency might try removing barred owls from the habitat of the spotted owls by either relocating or shooting them. It could be 10 years before researchers will know if removing barred owls can boost spotted owl populations, Ashe said. "The Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a very carefully thought-out experiment to see whether removing hundreds of Barred Owls will benefit Spotted Owls," said Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor at American Bird Conservancy in a statement. Like DellaSala, he wants to see more research on the impact of thinning.

The public has 90 days to submit comments on the proposals.