The celebrated barred owl that has dive-bombed several pedestrians and joggers in Bush Pasture Park since January 20th is no laughing matter, naturalists say.
On February 5, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow suggested a bright yellow warning sign be posted around the park, something that City of Salem Parks and Transportation has since done. On February 11, locals voted to name the bird, “Owlcapone” in a poll organized by the Statesman Journal.
But the barred owl is an invasive species in Oregon wich has radically diminished the population of the Northern Spotted Owl, native to the area. And the spotted owl is important, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) says.
“’Owlcapone’ is notorious.. for doing far more damage to the spotted owl than to human heads,” says a local naturalist who objects to the Salem community “naming them like pets.”
“The Northern Spotted Owl is listed as threatened in Oregon, Washington and California,” says Martin Nugent, Endangered Species Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says the spotted owl is fighting for survival against the more aggressive barred owl, which began in the 1980s to steal spotted owl nest sites in the Pacific Northwest.
Since its 1990 picture on the cover of Time magazine, the spotted owl is one of the best-known species in Oregon.
The barred owl’s historical range was on the east coast, from Maine down to Florida. A “bigger, meaner bird,” according to a 2009 Smithsonian article, the owl crossed the Great Plains at the beginning of the 20th Century. Nugent calls the barred owl a “fairly vicious predator,” and scientists assert that it disrupts the nesting of the smaller, gentler spotted owl species, competes with them for food and – on some occasions, kills them.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has identified competition from barred owls as “one of two main threats to the northern spotted owl’s continued survival (habitat loss is the other)” according to Oregon Fish and Wildlife.
Because of the severity of the threat, USFWS has made plans to experimentally “remove” (shoot) barred owls in a small part of its range in Washington, Oregon and California. USFWS says, “If the experimental removal of barred owls results in improved spotted owl populations,” USFWS says, it may consider proposing wider removals “as part of a barred owl management strategy.”
Currently the removal plan, whose decision was signed in September 2013, has been implemented in California, and its results are being studied there – but funding delays and limitations have postponed its initiation in Oregon.
USFWS says the removal of members of a common species to protect a rare species “is only used in the most serious conservation situations.” Prior to proceeding, it would conduct a separate environmental review, with an extensive public review and comment, before making a decision.
The Northern Spotted Owl has been involved in controversy since 1990, when it was put on the Endangered Species list, to the dismay of the timber industry, which said it needed to log old-growth forests in order to survive.
“From the environmentalists’ perspective,” say the Markkula Center for Applied Ethic’s Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez,” the benefits of preserving the northern spotted owl and its habitat far outweigh any of the costs.”
Andre and Velasquez argue that saving the spotted owl would save an entire ecosystem on which plants, other animals, and humans depend. “The spotted owl is considered an indicator species — a gauge of the health of the ecosystem that provides its habitat. The steady decline of this species signals the demise of other species.”