USFWS can continue barred owl removal, court rules

A U.S. federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can continue lethally removing non-native barred owls from threatened spotted owl ranges.

Spotted owls (Strix occidentalis), a species found along the West Coast of North America, have been federally listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1990. Between 1985 and 2013, the species declined 77% in Washington, 68% in Oregon and 55% in California, according to a 2019 study. In addition to threats of climate change and loss of old-growth forest habitats, researchers found a main driver of the species’ continued population decline is competition with the larger, more aggressive barred owl (Strix varia)—a species that has encroached on the spotted owl’s range.The USFWS officials began an experiment in August 2020 to eliminate 3,600 barred owls from a 500,000 acre study area to determine whether spotted

owl populations would benefit. This experiment was controversial, and several groups filed lawsuits against the agency to challenge the plan’s legality.

In a unanimous March 4 decision, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the USFWS could continue this lethal management of barred owls. The basis for this decision rested upon the spotted owl’s ESA listing status. Under Section 4 of the ESA, the agency is obligated to pursue management activities deemed necessary to facilitate recovery of listed species. In this case, the panel decided that given the scientific evidence identifying barred owl occupancy as a main threat to spotted owl recovery, the USFWS was within its rights to pursue lethal management of barred owls for the spotted owls’ benefit.

“For the northern spotted owl, it has been the worst of times: It remains a threatened species, and its population continues to dwindle in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California,” said Judge Kenneth Lee, one of the judges on the panel. “But it has been the best of times for the barred owl. Its abundant population burgeoning, the barred owl has expanded westward and encroached on the spotted owl’s habitat.”

The USFWS will regularly update the public on the progress and outcomes of  barred owl removal on spotted owl populations as the experiment progresses.

The Wildlife Society supports the integration of the best-available science in wildlife management and policy-making. To learn more, check out TWS’ standing position on The Use of Science in Policy and Management Decisions.

Header Image: Competition with barred owls (pictured above) is the main driver of the spotted owl’s continued decline, researchers said. Credit: Fyn Kynd