Grants Pass, Ore: Federal biologists are designing an experiment to see if killing the aggressive barred owl that has invaded old growth forests of the Northwest would help the spotted owl, which is protected.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday it is doing a formal study to decide whether to do the experiment, and laying out the terms if they go ahead. The study will be available for public comment and is expected to be completed by fall 2010.
"This is to be done experimentally so we can nail down whether, in fact, removing barred owls could improve spotted owl demographics, and also to look into the feasibility of doing that," said Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Bown, who is overseeing the evaluation.
The spotted owl went from a seldom-seen denizen of old growth forests to the cover of Time magazine in the 1990s as environmentalists forced the federal government to cut back logging on Northwest national forests to protect its habitat.
Despite the cutbacks, spotted owls continue to decline, most steeply where there are high populations of more aggressive barred owls that are native to eastern North America.
Though killing one species to protect another is not uncommon — on the West Coast, for instance, ravens are poisoned to protect threatened snowy plovers — a small-scale experiment with killing barred owls in northern California in 2005 created an uproar.
So Fish and Wildlife held meetings with interest groups to consider the ethical and moral implications of a larger experiment, and secured their agreement to look into an experiment, Bown said.
"There is a range of opinions" among scientists and interest groups, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Portland Audubon Society, who took part in the ethical discussion. "We are still struggling with where we come down.