Threatened spotted owl in decline due to barred owl

Northern spotted owl declines about 4% a year-

Throughout its range in the United States, the northern spotted owl has declined at nearly 4% a year from 1985 to 2013, according to a paper published in the Condor. The findings came from eleven study areas in northern California, Oregon and Washington. The owl also lives in southern British Columbia.

The major reason for this long term decline looks like the growing presence of the barred owl. It competes with the spotted owl in all aspects: prey, space, habitat. The spotted owl declined in all areas, except a relatively small area in northern California where the barred owl was recently culled to try to stop the downward spiral of the spotted owl. Loss of habitat and climate change was another, but lesser, factor in the dwindling of the population.

The northern spotted owl is limited to forests with large diameter conifers.

The larger barred owl has been spreading its territory westward for at least a century. Often called the “hoot owl,” the barred owl is not rare. It can occupy many kinds of habitat. Nonetheless, killing them to stifle their competition with the spotted owl has outraged some groups. Most environmentalists seem to be neutral or support the killing because they want to protect spotted owl numbers for biological, and especially political reasons — collapse of the spotted owl would weaken the fairly successful effort to retain the old growth forests. There are always calls to “open them up.”

The northern spotted owl was put on the threatened species list in 1990 after much acrimony. Logging in the old growth, a.k.a. “ancient forests,” of western Washington, Oregon and Northern California was greatly reduced in the 1990s due to court decisions and a new regional Forest Service plan designed to protect the habitat of the spotted owl. Environmentalists and the owl were blamed for a large loss of jobs in timbering that followed, especially in small sawmills and logging operations. It was a bitter political conflict.

Academic studies, however, generally showed that these jobs would have soon disappeared anyway because of the ongoing rapid liquidation (logging) of the old growth forests. This began in the 1950s on public lands. Retention of the remaining old growth forests also had economic as well as environmental benefits.

However, it is surprising and troubling how difficult and expensive it is to read these studies. Almost all of them can only be read after paying the high on-line toll of obtaining the article from the journals.

Environmentalists have informally argued that despite the decline in the spotted owl, the protection of the ancient forests far outweighed the owl issue because many other animals and plants were protected in the process. It would have been overwhelming to try to protect them one by one using the endangered species act and other regulatory methods.

There are two other sub-species of the spotted owl, the California spotted owl and the Mexican spotted owl. Neither is abundant or doing well.




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  1. Daryl L. Hunter Avatar

    The problem here Ralph is environmentalists think it is OK to lie to save something, I disagree. That is one of the reasons Patric Moore left Greenpeace.

    This makes me not want to help on things we have common ground on because I would never want to be identified as an environmentalist. I wrote an article about the Barred owl displacing the spotted owl in 2006, this is old science.

    1. TC Avatar

      Sure wouldn’t want to be an “environmentalist” – concerned about the environment around us that we need to survive and thrive. The horrors.

      You published no science. You had no data, and performed no analyses; heck, you didn’t even cite any real science. What was published in the Condor was long-term data collection and analysis with credible conclusions. The comparison to what you wrote is night and day. This is NEW science, and good science.

      KM Dugger et al. 2016. The effects of habitat, climate, and barred owls on long-term demography of northern spotted owls. Condor 57-116.

      1. Daryl L. Hunter Avatar

        There are those of us who consider ourselves conservationists instead of environmentalists because environmental activists have given a negative connotation to the label “environmentalist.”

        TC, I can make arguments to people who won’t listen to you and Ralph, because I am a conservative that loves nature, as do many of us. Remember the common ground I mentioned in my first comment.

        I used to write articles targeted toward conservatives, but mostly quit after seeing how environmentalists lie to achieve their goals. Since environmentalists are putting their thumb on the scales, I decided you didn’t need my help. An old example.

        1. JB Avatar

          “I used to write articles targeted toward conservatives, but mostly quit after seeing how environmentalists lie to achieve their goals.”

          Daryl: I don’t see how you can define yourself as a conservative in one breath, and then say you stopped advocating (in the form of writing) for the environment because “environmentalists lie to achieve their goals”. Even if I accepted this blanket ad hominem attack on environmentalists (which I don’t), the obvious retort is that conservatives also lie (haven’t you been paying attention to the Republican debates?). Here’s an excellent example:

        2. Yvette Avatar


          1. an expert on environmental problems.
          2. any person who advocates or works to protect the air, water, animals, plants, and other natural resources from pollution or its effects.
          3. a person who believes that differences between individuals or groups, especially in moral and intellectual attributes, are predominantly determined by environmental factors, as surroundings, upbringing, or experience (opposed to hereditarian).

          Merriam Webster (Merriam Webster defines environmentalist as an advocate of environmentalism)


          1: a theory that views environment rather than heredity as the important factor in the development and especially the cultural and intellectual development of an individual or group
          2: advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment; especially : the movement to control pollution

          1. a person who advocates or promotes conservation, especially of natural resources.


          con·ser·va·tion·ist \-sh(ə-)nist\

          1: someone who works to protect animals, plants, and natural resources or to prevent the loss or waste of natural resources : a person who is involved in conservation.

          The definitions are largely semantics based on a group’s (ideology based) perspective. The noun, ‘environmentalist’ has become a distasteful description of people who advocate and work to protect and preserve the natural world that are not politically right wing.

          “TC, I can make arguments to people who won’t listen to you and Ralph, because I am a conservative that loves nature, as do many of us.”

          If you are politically conservative and are accepted by peers in that group, I have no doubt they will listen to you while tuning out anyone that group deems as ‘untrustworthy’ based on their risk perception. That works both ways. It’s human nature to place more trust in someone that fits within your society/group/peers.

          This is can be verified by numerous research on cultural cognition.

          I skimmed the free-press blog you wrote in 2000. It’s good to have a politically conservative advocate and write blog articles to persuade their peers. However, I see too much conjecture in your statements to believe you stopped writing, advocating and attempting to persuade your peers based upon your statement that “environmentalists lie or put their thumb on the scales”.

    2. Jay Avatar

      “I wrote an article about the Barred owl displacing the spotted owl in 2006, this is old science.”


      1. Daryl L. Hunter Avatar

        This is the article I wrote in 2006 for Planet Jackson Hole. It is republished here.

    3. Theo Chu Avatar
      Theo Chu

      Blanket labeling of all environmentalists as thinking “….it is ok to lie to save something”…such as you just did is a lie in itself.

      1. Daryl L. Hunter Avatar

        Theo, where is it where I said “all environmentalists”?

        1. Theo Chu Avatar
          Theo Chu

          In the first comment of this string where you said “The problem here Ralph is environmentalists think it is OK to lie to save something,….” You could have written “some environmentalists” or even “most environmentalists”,but you wrote “environmentalists” which reads as all inclusive. If that was not your intent I accept that.

          1. Daryl L. Hunter Avatar

            Theo, I am referring to “many” of the activists, not all. Also not the rank and file environmentalist, I do believe though,without analysis, the rank and file carry the water for the activists.

            I have wrote many times that environmentalist are a well meaning bunch of volunteer watch dogs, I wish I could believe them!

            None the less, I don’t want to be mistaken for one. I am a nature photographer so naturally I am friends with many environmentalists. I work with some in my own way on common ground issues.

            1. Theo Chu Avatar
              Theo Chu

              Thanks for the explanation. I consider myself an environmentalist and conservationists. I wouldn’t want you to be mistaken for one either. I would be interested in knowing specific examples of times you couldn’t “believe them”.

    4. skyrim Avatar

      It apears that the issue with Mr. Moore may not be quite what this implication suggests. Before suggesting (enviros) are less than truthful,
      perhaps Mr. Moore’s creds should be more closely examined.

  2. aves Avatar

    A little more detail on the research, including a link to a PDF of the full paper:

  3. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    One hypothesis for this range expansion is that fire exclusion by European settlers allowed forest riparian corridors to become more extensive in the Great Plains region and these areas served as a stepping stone for barred owls to move westward, Forsman said. While researchers didn’t know for sure that barred owls would be a problem when they first began sharing spotted owl habitat, “it now appears that it is a catastrophe for spotted owls,” he said.

    Just one catastrophe after another. I’ve been reading more and more about the systematic destruction of the bison herds too. Just awful. I wish we’d quit blaming other creaturess, and own up to and correct our own mistakes.

    Thanks, Aves!

    I think we can all agree that not all hunters are psychotic killers, and that not all environmentalists are pathological liars? There’s a lot of middle ground.

  4. Susan Avatar

    Most insidious of all, barred owl and spotted owl are known to hybridize.

  5. Angela Avatar

    If the barred owl is replacing spotted owls almost everywhere in their range, it seems the only way to keep the spotted owls from being displaced is ongoing, intensive intervention to “control” (kill) barred owls throughout the range where spotted owls persist, into the foreseeable future. This suggests that old-growth forest patches are already too small to maintain viable populations of spotted owls unless such control continues. Will areas set aside by the government and timber companies to regrow in order to increase the size of old-growth patches be enough to sustain spotted owls in the future without such intervention? I have thought a lot about it and I consider the extinction of any species, no matter how small, a huge tragedy; room for other species is the reason I chose not to reproduce. However, in this case, I wonder whether we are trying to prevent something that is ecologically inevitable given the changes humans have made to the landscape and the fact that disturbance and resource extraction activities are ongoing. It’s sad that the protection of old-growth forest is linked so strongly to one species in some areas and I hope that can change. It’s an extremely tough situation! If we look at North American ecological communities over geological frames of time, such displacements and extinctions have always been part of the dynamic. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the last glacial retreat has ongoing effects on the evolution of species and communities. It seems the legal protection of old-growth has become the overriding reason to protect spotted owls in one sense. I have spent a lot of time in old-growth forests in the Sierra Nevada and roadless areas of southeast Alaska doing surveys for wildlife and endangered species–there is so little left that it is tragic it is not protected for its own sake rather than any one species. What is the answer? If it was detached from the issue of old-growth protection and up to me, I might favor allowing the barred owl to fill that niche and displace or hybridize with spotted owls if they are evolutionarily more adapted to the new landscape we have created. Is there any hope of maintaining enough mature forest into the future to sustain viable spotted owl populations without intervention? Hybridization and speciation are an inevitable and natural part of our geological circumstances. Just my thoughts.

    1. Leslie Avatar

      Angela, I worked on a spotted owl study in Marin County for 3 years after the Point Reyes fires. What was interesting is that we found the owls did not need old growth, just ‘older growth’ or larger trees and a diverse forest. We found nesting owls in Douglas Fir dominated woods where the firs where no more than a few hundred years old. We found owls in Redwood forests where all the old growth had been taken down 100 years ago, and so the remaining redwoods were basically around that age or a bit more with a very occasional old redwood that had been missed. I even sighted a spotted in an oak/madrone forest.

      A healthy forest will support these owls. It appears killing Barred Owls may be the only way to protect spotted owls at this point.

      1. Angela Avatar

        Hi Leslie, I do understand that and it’s a good point; to clarify, I was wondering whether patches of habitat exist where spotted owls might remain viable and resist invasion by barred owls? If they don’t exist now and never will, should we keep killing barred owls in perpetuity or let nature take its course because barred owls are naturally expanding their range? It’s a bit of an ethical quandary for me, personally speaking. I respect the views of those on both sides, for sure.

  6. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    Angela and Leslie both present excellent discussion of the issue. I have considered this quandary for a few years without coming to a reasonable solution in my own mind.

  7. Tonya Avatar

    Culling one species to save the other…as a wildlife rehabilitator and whatever we that care about the environment are calling ourselves, I can not agree with this method in any instance. The Barred owl is not the cause nor will it be the solution. Being indifferent about that fact is not ok. The “government” should not be the power in charge of animal conservation. They will do what is profitable at every turn, Sage grouse, Red wolf etc. If things don’t change in the near future we will lose a lot more species “protected” by the government. Truly is heart breaking and an embarrassment.


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Ralph Maughan