PORTLAND, Ore. - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invites public input in the preparation of a draft Environmental Impact Statement for a Barred Owl Management Strategy to address the threat of the non-native barred owl to native northern and California spotted owls. This announcement opens a 30-day public scoping period.
Northern spotted owl populations are in serious decline due to competition from the invasive and non-native barred owl, along with past and ongoing habitat loss. Reducing the negative impacts of barred owls is necessary for the long-term survival and recovery of the federally listed northern spotted owl.
California spotted owls face a similar risk from barred owl competition as barred owl populations continue to expand southward. The Service is taking the lead in developing a Barred Owl Management Strategy that could be implemented by federal, state or Tribal agencies and other landowners.
“There is a sense of urgency here. The Service looks forward to working with our partners to swiftly develop and implement a management strategy that reduces the harmful impacts barred owls are having on spotted owls,” said Craig Rowland, acting state supervisor for the Service’s Oregon office. “We are seeking input from all interested parties so we can take the best possible path forward.”
Public input will be used to prepare a draft Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Service is working with partners and other stakeholders to consider all possible methods to manage barred owls, including lethal removal.
The Service recently completed a multi-year barred owl removal experiment to test whether northern spotted owls would benefit from the removal of barred owls. This was the largest field experiment ever conducted of its kind – taking part in three western states and incorporating 17 years of demographic data on northern spotted owl.
The results from the study show barred owl removal had a strong, positive effect on northern spotted owl survival, which ultimately stopped population declines in areas where barred owls were removed. Northern spotted owl populations continued to decline sharply in control areas where barred owls were not removed. Information from this study is being used in the development of the barred owl management strategy.
The Service has opened a 30-day public scoping comment period and is seeking public input to help identify issues and concerns, potential impacts and possible alternatives for the development and implementation of the Environmental Impact Statement for a barred owl management strategy. Information on how to submit public comments can be found one regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS–R1–ES–2022–0074.
The Service will hold a virtual public meeting July 28, 2022, from 6-8 p.m., Pacific Time. The meeting will include a presentation followed by questions and discussion on the Environmental Impact Statement process for the management strategy. A link and access instructions to the virtual meeting will be posted to http://www.fws.gov/office/oregon-fish-and-wildlife at least one week prior to the public meeting date.
For more information about the Barred Owl Management Strategy, please visit: https://www.fws.gov/project/barred-owl-management.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information about our work and the people who make it happen, visit http://www.fws.gov/office/oregon-fish-and-wildlife or connect with us via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.
Frequently Asked Questions
What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking today?
The Service is developing a proposed barred owl management strategy to address the threat of the invasive and non-native barred owl to native northern and California spotted owls in the West. The management strategy will include actions to reduce barred owl populations and their competitive exclusion of federally listed northern spotted owl. It will also focus on limiting barred owl expansion into the range of the California spotted owl before the invasive bird becomes more established. The Service is taking the lead in developing a barred owl management strategy that could be implemented by federal, state, and Tribal agencies and other landowners.
What is the current status of the northern spotted owl?
The northern spotted owl has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1990. The northern spotted owl currently meets the definition of an endangered species, meaning it is danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. In December 2020, the Service announced that reclassification of the northern spotted owl from threatened to endangered (uplisting) is warranted but precluded by higher priority listing actions. Although uplisting is precluded at this time, protective measures of the Endangered Species Act are already in place because the species is currently listed as threatened.
How do encroaching barred owls affect northern spotted owls?
In many parts of the northern spotted owl’s range, barred owls now outnumber spotted owls. Research clearly shows that northern spotted owl population declines are more pronounced in areas where barred owls are present, and declines are greatest where barred owls have been present the longest and are in larger populations.
Barred owls are larger, more aggressive, and have a wider prey base than spotted owls. They displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting, and compete with them for food. In a few cases, barred owls have been observed attacking spotted owls. Some hybridization between spotted and barred owls has also occurred, though generally at very low levels. The additional pressure from the presence of barred owls exacerbates the existing stress on spotted owl populations due to historic habitat loss.
When did barred owls start moving into the northern spotted owl’s range?
Barred owls are native to eastern North America, and their populations began to expand west of the Mississippi River around the turn of the 20th century. Barred owls reached the range of the northern spotted owl in British Columbia, Canada, around 1959 and continued to expand southward. They were first documented in Washington in the 1970s and now outnumber northern spotted owls in most of the subspecies range in California, Oregon, and Washington.
What is the status of California spotted owls, and how much do barred owls impact them?
Although not federally listed, the California spotted owl is considered by the Service as an at-risk species. They are listed as a species of concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Service is currently completing a 12-month status review of the California spotted owl to determine whether the species should be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Barred owls have recently invaded the range of California spotted owls. California spotted owls face a similar risk from barred owl competition as barred owl populations continue to expand southward.
Why are we including California spotted owls in the management strategy if they are not federally listed and there are fewer barred owls within their range?
Without barred owl management, the distribution and density of the invasive barred owls are expected to increase throughout the California spotted owl’s range. By including California spotted owls in the management strategy, we can focus on limiting the invasion of barred owls into the range of the California spotted owl. If barred owls do succeed in establishing populations in the range of the California spotted owl, the strategy will allow a rapid response to reduce those barred owl populations and prevent them from impacting California spotted owl populations.
How widely will this strategy be implemented? Would the management occur in areas with California spotted owls where barred owls are not prevalent or not yet present?
The Service is seeking input from the public on how and where barred owl management should occur throughout the entire range of northern spotted owl and California spotted owl.
Barred owls have expanded into the northern portion of the California spotted owl range in the Sierra Nevada. Based on their history of invasion and impacts to northern spotted owl, barred owls are highly likely to continue expanding their range further south, resulting in increased impacts to California spotted owls. Preventative measures to limit further expansion of barred owls into and throughout the California spotted owl range will be evaluated in the draft Environmental Impact Statement, as will methods to rapidly respond to reduce any barred owl populations that may become established before they can impact California spotted owl populations. The Service will continue to coordinate with California to allow for effective implementation of the plan in accordance with state laws and policies.
What are the main threats to the northern spotted owl?
The two main threats to the survival of the northern spotted owl are competition from invasive barred owls and habitat loss. Both threats were identified when the northern spotted owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, but their magnitude has changed over the years. The Service is concerned the northern spotted owl is likely to be extirpated from some or all of its range without both barred owl management and continued habitat conservation.
What is the Service doing about the barred owl threat to the northern spotted owl?
(a)(1) of the Endangered Species Act directs the Secretary of the Interior and all federal agencies to proactively use their authorities to conserve threatened and endangered species. About one-third of the northern spotted owl recovery plan focuses on addressing the threat of the encroaching barred owl. The Service, along with partners, completed an experimental removal of barred owls to test the feasibility of barred owl removal in order to determine whether it improves conditions for spotted owls. The experimental removal of barred owls improved spotted owl populations. This information is being used in the development of a barred owl management strategy that could be implemented by federal, state, and Tribal agencies and other landowners.
Is there evidence that barred owl removal will benefit spotted owls? What are the findings from the experimental removal of barred owls?
The experiment compared spotted and barred owl populations on four study areas across the range of the northern spotted owl – one in Washington, two in Oregon, and one in northern California. The experiment demonstrated success in the removal of barred owls, resulting in reduced and declining barred owl populations within the removal areas. In areas where no removal occurred, barred owl populations continued to increase.
The removal of barred owls had a strong and positive effect on survival of spotted owls. In the treatment areas where barred owls were removed, spotted owl populations stabilized after three to six years of removal. In paired control areas without barred owl removal, spotted owl populations continued to decline at 12% per year. The removal experiment demonstrated that barred owl removal can be an effective method for the conservation of spotted owls.
The experiment was completed in 2021. For additional information about the study, please visit:https://www.fws.gov/project/barred-owl-study-update.
Aren’t barred owls a native species? Is this a natural range expansion of barred owls?
The expansion of barred owls from their historic range in eastern North America was likely a result of human-facilitated changes in the conditions in the northern Great Plains and boreal forest. Changes in climate, fire suppression, the extirpation of bison and beaver, and tree planting associated with European settlement may have created patches of forested habitat, in turn altering natural barriers that previously inhibited the barred owl’s expansion westward.
Should we let nature take its course?
It is clear the federally listed northern spotted owl will be extirpated in all, or a significant portion, of its range unless we manage invasive barred owl populations. On behalf of the American people, the Service and other federal agencies have a legal and ethical responsibility to do everything we can, within the confines of our respective authorities and funding, to prevent the extinction of northern spotted owl and help it recover.
If barred owls are the key threat to northern spotted owls, why are we still focused on protecting and conserving habitat?
Although barred owls have risen in their magnitude of threat, habitat loss remains a concern for the northern spotted owl. When the spotted owl was listed in 1990, the Service estimated its old-growth habitat had declined from 60% to 88% since the early 1800s. We have worked successfully with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other partners to slow northern spotted owl habitat loss on federal lands. Since the time of listing, habitat loss from timber harvest has been significantly reduced and occurs at rates lower than anticipated in the Northwest Forest Plan. However, in recent years, the amount of habitat lost to wildfire on federal land has exceeded what was lost to timber harvest. Northern spotted owl recovery requires a combination of habitat and barred owl management.
How can the Service propose to manage barred owls if they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and state regulations?
Implementation of the management strategy will likely require authorization under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Service will continue to work on the most effective methods to authorize any needed take of barred owls. Washington, Oregon, and California also require permits or authorization for the management of barred owls. The Service is working with all states to ensure that state authorizations are also available.
Is the Service considering both lethal and non-lethal options for the management strategy?
In developing a management strategy, we will use the best available science and consider all management approaches, including non-lethal and lethal methods of removal. Non-lethal methods could include, but are not limited to, capture and translocation or capture and permanent captivity. If lethal methods are included, all barred owl removal would be conducted using methods that are as safe, humane, and efficient as possible. Every effort would be made to minimize the risk of unnecessary injury or trauma to barred owls and other species.
We will evaluate the effectiveness of these methods, in addition to whether it will be feasible to use these methods on a broader scale.
Is the Service taking ethical considerations into account for the development of this management strategy?
Yes. We considered ethical issues in the development of the removal experiment and will again explore ethical considerations in the upcoming draft Environmental Impact Statement for the management strategy.
As part of our development of the barred owl removal experiment, in early 2009, we established a Barred Owl Stakeholder Group. This group included representatives of broad-interest environmental organizations, bird-specific conservation groups, animal welfare organizations, the timber industry, Tribes, state and local government agencies, and others. The group was one of a variety of sources of information that helped the Service consider the ethical aspects of potential barred owl research decisions. To facilitate constructive group dialogue, we hired an environmental ethicist who helped all of us better understand the value conflicts embedded in environmental controversies. He also provided background information for exploring various ethical theories and moral questions to gain insight on a range of perspectives on wildlife-related ethics.
Has wildlife removal been used as a management tool in other situations?
Yes, wildlife removal has been used as a management tool by many agencies across the country to control such as invasive carp, Burmese python, feral hogs, rats, and nutria. Invasive species can thrive in areas where they do not naturally occur. They degrade, change, or displace native habitats, compete with native wildlife, and are major threats to biodiversity. Consequently, non-native species control is commonly used to protect and maintain native species and ecosystems.
There have been many occasions when the Service and other agencies found it necessary to carry out removal measures for one species to safeguard another species listed under the Endangered Species Act or a species of concern. A few examples include the removal of red-tailed hawks to help endangered parrots in Puerto Rico, rats and mongoose removal to protect seabirds in Hawaii, brown-headed cowbirds removal to protect Kirtland’s warblers and southwestern willow flycatchers, and removal of foxes, crows, and ravens to protect western snowy plovers. Such measures are given careful consideration and include evaluating the potential for other, non-lethal options.
How can I learn more about the management strategy and provide input?
The Service encourages anyone with an interest in spotted owl recovery and barred owl management to provide comments on the development of this management strategy. The Service opened a public scoping comment period and is seeking public input to help identify issues and concerns, potential impacts, and possible alternatives for the development and implementation of an Environmental Impact Statement for a barred owl management strategy. The notice and supporting documents can be obtained online in Docket No. FWS–R1–ES–2022-0074 at http://www.regulations.gov.
Public comments can be submitted in writing via:
- Internet: https://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments on Docket No. FWS–R1–ES–2022–0074.
- U.S. mail: Public Comments Processing; Attn: Docket No. FWS–R1–ES–2022–0074; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, MS: PRB/3W; 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.
Comments submitted online at https://www.regulations.gov/ must be received by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on August 22, 2022. Hardcopy comments must be received or postmarked on or before August 22, 2022.
The Service will hold a virtual public scoping meeting during the scoping period at the following day and time: 6-8 p.m. Pacific Time, July 28, 2022. A link and access instructions to the virtual meeting will be posted to http://www.fws.gov/office/oregon-fish-and-wildlife/ at least one week prior to the public meeting date.
This is the first stage of development for the management strategy. We will also solicit public input on a draft Environmental Impact Statement at the next stage of this process, before a final strategy and Environmental Impact Statement, and then a Record of Decision is presented. We will maintain a webpage for the development and implementation of this management strategy to keep stakeholders and the public updated, here: https://www.fws.gov/project/barred-owl-management.