In this photo taken in the early morning hours of Oct. 24, 2018, wildlife technician Jordan Hazan records data in a lab in Corvallis, Ore., from a male barred owl he shot earlier in the night.
As he stood amid the thick old-growth forests in the coastal range of Oregon, Dave Wiens was nervous. Before he trained to shoot his first barred owl, he had never fired a gun.
He eyed the big female owl, her feathers streaked brown and white, perched on a branch at just the right distance. Then he squeezed the trigger and the owl fell to the forest floor, its carcass adding to a running tally of more than 2,400 barred owls killed so far in a controversial experiment by the US government to test whether the northern spotted owl’s rapid decline in the Pacific Northwest can be stopped by killing its aggressive East Coast cousin.
Wiens is the son of a well-known ornithologist and grew up fascinated by birds, and his graduate research in owl interactions helped lay the groundwork for this tense moment.
“It’s a little distasteful, I think, to go out killing owls to save another owl species,” said Wiens, a biologist who still views each shooting as “gut-wrenching” as the first. “Nonetheless, I also feel like from a conservation standpoint, our back was up against the wall. We knew that barred owls were outcompeting spotted owls and their populations were going haywire.”
The federal government has been trying for decades to save the northern spotted owl, a native bird that sparked an intense battle over logging across Washington, Oregon and California decades ago.
After the owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, earning it a cover on Time Magazine, federal officials halted logging on millions of acres of old-growth forests on federal lands to protect the bird’s habitat. But the birds’ population continued to decline.
Meanwhile, researchers, including Wiens, began documenting another threat — larger, more aggressive barred owls competing with spotted owls for food and space and displacing them in some areas.
In almost all ways, the barred owl is the spotted owl’s worst enemy: They reproduce more often, have more babies per year and eat the same prey, like squirrels and wood rats. And they now outnumber spotted owls in many areas of the native bird’s historic range.
So in a last-ditch effort to see whether they can save spotted owls, federal officials are resorting to killing hundreds of federally protected barred owls.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service experiment, which began in 2015, has raised thorny questions: To what extent can we reverse declines that have unfolded over decades, often due partially to actions by humans? And as climate change continues to shake up the landscape, displacing species and altering how and where plants and animals live and thrive, how should we intervene?
The experimental killing of barred owls raised such moral dilemmas when it first was proposed in 2012 that the Fish and Wildlife Service took the unusual step of hiring an ethicist to help work through whether it was acceptable and could be done humanely.
Just as with other conservation measures that involve killing one creature to save another, the program also prompted litigation and debate.
Federal and state officials, for example, have broken the necks of thousands of cowbirds to save the warbler, a songbird once on the brink of extinction. To preserve salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest and perch and other fish in the Midwest, federal and state agencies kill thousands of large seabirds called double-crested cormorants. And last year, Congress passed a law making it easier for Oregon, Washington, Idaho and American Indian tribes to kill sea lions that gobble imperiled salmon runs in the Columbia River.
The owl experiment is unusual because it involves killing one species of owl to save another owl species — and it may well be the largest killing program involving raptors.
In four small study areas in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, Wiens and his trained team have been picking off invasive barred owls with 12-gauge shotguns to see whether the native birds return to their nesting habitat once their competitors are gone. Small efforts to remove barred owls in British Columbia and northern California already showed promising results.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has a permit to kill up to 3,600 owls and, if the $5 million program works, could decide to expand its efforts.
Wiens, who works for the US Geological Survey, now views his gun as “a research tool” in humankind’s attempts to maintain biodiversity and rebalance the forest ecosystem. Because the barred owl has few predators in Northwest forests, he sees his team’s role as apex predator, acting as a cap on a population that doesn’t have one.
“Humans, by stepping in and taking that role in nature, we may be able to achieve more biodiversity in the environment, rather than just having barred owls take over and wipe out all the prey species,” he said.