To protect the endangered spotted owl from extinction, U.S. wildlife officials are implementing a controversial plan to employ trained shooters in dense West Coast forests to eliminate barred owls that are displacing their relatives.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s strategy, unveiled on Wednesday, aims to bolster dwindling spotted owl populations in Oregon, Washington state, and California. The Associated Press obtained details in advance.

Documents released by the agency reveal that up to approximately 450,000 barred owls would be shot over a period of three decades. These owls, originating from the eastern U.S., have encroached upon the West Coast territory of two owl species: northern spotted owls and California spotted owls. The smaller spotted owls have struggled to compete with the invaders, which produce larger broods and require less space for survival compared to spotted owls.

Past efforts to conserve spotted owls centered on safeguarding their forest habitats, leading to contentious debates about logging but also contributing to slowing the decline of these birds. The recent surge in barred owl numbers has undermined these earlier endeavors, officials stated.

“Without actively managing barred owls, northern spotted owls will likely go extinct in all or the majority of their range, despite decades of collaborative conservation efforts,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Oregon state supervisor Kessina Lee.

The concept of eliminating one bird species to save another has sparked division among wildlife advocates and conservationists. It evokes past government initiatives to protect West Coast salmon by culling seals and sea lions that prey on the fish, and to preserve warblers by eliminating cowbirds that lay eggs in warbler nests.

Some advocates have reluctantly accepted the barred owl removal strategy; others have labeled it a reckless distraction from the necessary preservation of forests.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is turning from protector of wildlife to persecutor of wildlife,” asserted Wayne Pacelle, founder of the advocacy group Animal Wellness Action. He predicted the program would fail because the agency would be unable to prevent more barred owls from migrating into areas where others have been killed.

The shootings would likely commence next spring, officials indicated. Barred owls would be lured using megaphones to broadcast recorded owl calls, followed by being shot with shotguns. Carcasses would be buried on-site.

These birds are already being killed by researchers in some spotted owl habitats, with approximately 4,500 removed since 2009, according to Robin Bown, barred owl strategy leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service. These targeted removals included barred owls in California’s Sierra Nevada region, where the animals have only recently arrived, and officials are aiming to prevent populations from establishing themselves.

In other areas where barred owls are more established, officials intend to reduce their numbers but acknowledge that shooting owls is unlikely to eliminate them entirely.

Supporters of the plan include the American Bird Conservancy and other conservation organizations.

Barred owls do not belong in the West, stated American Bird Conservancy Vice President Steve Holmer. Killing them is unfortunate, he added, but reducing their numbers could enable them to coexist with spotted owls in the long term.

“As the old forests are allowed to regrow, hopefully coexistence is possible and maybe we don’t need to do as much” shooting, Holmer suggested.

The killings would decrease North American barred owl numbers by less than 1% annually, officials stated. This pales in comparison to the potential extinction of spotted owls if the issue remains unresolved.

Because barred owls are aggressive hunters, removing them could also benefit other West Coast species that have been preyed upon by them, such as salamanders and crayfish, explained Tom Wheeler, director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a California-based conservation group.

Public hunting of barred owls would not be permitted. The wildlife service would designate government agencies, landowners, American Indian tribes, or companies to carry out the killings. Shooters would be required to provide documentation of training or experience in owl identification and firearm proficiency.

The upcoming publication of a final environmental study on the proposal, expected in the coming days, will initiate a 30-day comment period before a final decision is made.

The barred owl plan follows decades of conflict between conservationists and timber companies, which have felled vast areas of older forests where spotted owls reside.

Early efforts to protect the birds culminated in logging bans in the 1990s that disrupted the timber industry and its political allies in Congress.

However, spotted owl populations continued to decline after barred owls began appearing on the West Coast several decades ago. Across the region, at least half of spotted owls have been lost, with declines of 75% or more in some study areas, reported Katherine Fitzgerald, who leads the wildlife service’s northern spotted owl recovery program.

Opponents argue that the mass killing of barred owls would severely disrupt forest ecosystems and could lead to other species, including spotted owls, being mistakenly shot. They have also challenged the notion that barred owls do not belong on the West Coast, characterizing their expanding range as a natural ecological phenomenon.

Researchers suggest that barred owls migrated westward via one of two routes: across the Great Plains, where trees planted by settlers provided them with a foothold in new areas; or through Canada’s boreal forests, which have become more hospitable as temperatures rise due to climate change.

Northern spotted owls are federally protected as a threatened species. Federal officials determined in 2020 that their continued decline warranted an upgrade to the more critical designation of “endangered.” However, the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to make this change at the time, citing other species as a priority.

California spotted owls were proposed for federal protections last year. A decision is pending.

Under former President Donald Trump, government officials weakened protections for spotted owls at the behest of the timber industry. These protections were reinstated under President Joe Biden after the Interior Department concluded that political appointees under Trump relied on flawed science to justify their weakening of protections.