Killing barred owls to study the potential effects on threatened spotted owls does not violate federal environmental laws, according to a federal judge.
Populations of the northern spotted owl, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act, have continued to decline in recent decades despite strict limits on logging.
Federal scientists believe the problem is partly due to the barred owl, a rival species that’s more adaptable, occupies similar habitats and competes for food.
In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized an experiment to remove 3,600 barred owls over four years, typically by shooting them, to see if spotted owl recovery improves.
Friends of Animals and Predator Defense, two animal rights groups, filed a complaint last year accusing the agency of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to evaluate alternatives to lethal removal of barred owls.
They also claimed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s study is contrary to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, under which the U.S. and other countries agreed to protect migratory birds.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken has rejected these arguments, finding that the agency wasn’t obligated to undertake other “recovery actions” for the spotted owl that didn’t call for removal of barred owls.
The agency took a sufficiently “hard look” at the study’s effects, including the possibility that it may disrupt an “equilibrium” between the two owl species in some areas, Aiken said.
The experiment also falls within an exception to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which permits birds to be killed for “scientific research or educational purposes,” she said.
From the Fish and Wildlife Service’s perspective, the judge’s opinion validates the significant amount of time and effort the agency spent studying the issue, said Robin Bown, biologist for the agency.
“I think we made our case,” she said. “We feel we did very inclusive work on this.”
The plaintiffs are still undecided whether to challenge Aiken’s ruling before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Michael Harris, director of Friends of Animals’ wildlife law program.
Habitat loss remains the primary culprit for the decline of spotted owls, he said. “The amount of old growth habitat hasn’t increased.”
Spending millions of dollars by shooting barred owls in the Northwest year after year isn’t feasible but it is cruel to the birds, Harris said.
It’s possible that the two owl species will find niches and coexist over time, he said.
Fish and Wildlife officials are rushing to judgment to blame barred owls to escape making tough decisions about forest management, Harris said. “You’re just taking a shortcut by scapegoating the barred owl.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disagrees with this perspective.
Biologists initially hoped the two species would be able to occupy different habitats, but the barred owl has consistently invaded the spotted owl’s territory since the 1970s, said Bown.
As soon as the barred owl took over riparian areas, it “began marching up the hillsides” to upland territory favored by the spotted owl, she said.
“There is no evidence of any environment where spotted owls can outcompete barred owls,” Bown said.
While the removal study costs $1 million a year, that includes costs related to the scientific analysis, she said.
“When you’re doing a study, it costs more than operational activities,” she said.
If removal proves effective at protecting spotted owls, other less-costly methods of controlling the barred owl’s population growth may become available in the future, Bown said.
So far, 71 barred owls were removed during the first year of the study and 54 were removed during the second year, both at a site in Northern California.
The Fish and Wildlife Service expects the removals to begin in at least two new sites in Oregon and Washington during the autumn of 2015.
Data collected during the first two removal periods is insufficient to indicate whether the removals are helping spotted owls, Bown said. “It’s hard to look for a trend with only two points.”