Northern spotted owl USF&W photo

The Migratory Bird Act makes it illegal to kill barred owls, Strix varia. It is a crime that is punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and can include jail time. That is unless you are working for the federal government and you are killing barred owls in Western old growth forests in an attempt to save the endangered spotted owl, Strix occidentalis caurina. The just-released federal recovery plan for the northern spotted owl calls for killing hundreds, maybe thousands of healthy barred owls. This issue is contentious and intriguing on many levels.


The northern spotted owl, a shy, retiring resident of Pacific Northwest old growth forests was catapulted into the limelight a couple of decades ago when it was listed on the Federal Endangered Species List and made the poster child for the efforts to curtail logging in those old growth forests. The debate was loud and long and rancorous. There was the spiking of timber (driving steel spikes into standing timber) by anti logging activists creating danger for loggers with chainsaws and sawmill operators. Loggers and their supporters countered with demonstrations that included caravans of log trucks and other timbering equipment. Expensive and time consuming suits and countersuits were filed by both sides. And the federal government, depending on the current (at the time) administration’s environmental proclivities, either supported and, perhaps, strengthened regulations protecting old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest or eased said regulations.

Meanwhile, in the midst of pitched battles between the opposing sides, the northern spotted owl’s eastern cousin, the barred owl began flexing its feathered muscles. The larger, more aggressive barred owl arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1960s and early 1970s. Barred owls out compete and sometimes even attack northern spotted owls, usurping nesting habitat and displacing their smaller, western cousins.

Despite years of greatly curtailed logging, the northern spotted owl shows little sign of recovery. Focus is being shifted to the interactions between the barred and spotted owls. Robyn Thorson, US Fish and Wildlife’s Pacific Northwest’s director, called the barred owl, “…the biggest threat spotted owls are facing,” and, reluctantly, supports the culling of barred owls.

Now if barred owls were “exotic” – that is if they had not reached the Pacific Northwest of their own volition – obliterating them with shotguns might be a lot easier to swallow. Surely, a lot of human-influenced factors like fire suppression and tree planting across the northern plains paved the way for barred owls, but still, they got there under their own power and for many, it’s just a question of natural selection.

In a scenario like this there is little doubt what the outcome would be. The barred owl is a generalist. It has a varied diet and nests successfully throughout a number of different habitats. The northern spotted owl, on the other hand is very selective regarding diet and nesting habitat. Add the barred owl’s aggressive nature – and it’s pretty easy to see that without help the spotted owl’s days are numbered.

When you throw politics into the mix it becomes a real circus. Timbering proponents are ecstatic. They are pointing fingers and saying – “see – it wasn’t us – it was the barred owl all along – now let us go and cut trees again” never mind that they decimated 60 to 80 percent of the northern spotted owl’s habitat already, severely restricting them while enhancing barred owl habitat. And there are a lot of people and organizations with a lot of vested time and monies tied up in the rescue of the spotted owl willing to try anything to keep their poster child from fading into the sunset.

I will admit to being somewhat ambivalent, but when I simply look at the biology – killing barred owls will never work unless you plan on killing large numbers of them for the better part of a century or longer, until enough old growth is created to give the northern spotted owl some sort of buffer.