East Coast Vs. West Coast Owls: Survival of the Fittest

Nature is Survival of the Fittest, So Why are Biologists Proposing the Demise of One Owl Species to Save Another?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

As a person who loves birds and nature, especially my native forest friends, the Barred Owls, it is disturbing to think the survival of one owl species depends on the demise of the other.

But that’s precisely what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposes so their agents can shoot close to 500,000 Barred Owls in West Coast forests over the next 30 years. Why? Because the Barred Owl is crowding out native Spotted Owls.

And now it is a battle of east coast owls versus west coast owls. Only in this battle, humanity is taking a side.

The USFWS is responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. Our incredible wildlife rehabilitators answer to them and follow strict guidelines for caring for injured animals.

All wildlife is managed by the USFWS. Wildlife rehabilitators serve them by donating their time to care for our wildlife. Not to mention paying for considerable medical expenses raised through events and fundraising activities with personal donors.

With such strict guidelines for caring for wildlife, you question why the USFWS is considering drastic measures to save the Spotted Owls of the West Coast forest.

Survival of the Fittest

The problem is that Barred Owls, residents of the northeastern U.S., are in decline in parts of the south with the loss of swamp habitats, so the birds expanded their range to survive and migrated to the northwest and are crowding out their close genetic relatives, the Spotted Owls.

Biologists predict that without action against the Barred Owls, the Spotted Owls (already a threatened species) will disappear from parts of Washington and Oregon and go extinct in a few years.

The USFWS is proposing to right a historic ecological wrong caused by human influence as European settlers spread west, causing the Barred Owl to colonize the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s not the Barred Owls’ fault. It’s our fault for bringing them out here. It’s not the Spotted Owls’ fault either,” says Robin Brown, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who is the agency’s Barred Owl strategy lead. “The species’ future is extinction if we don’t manage Barred Owls. The writing is on the wall.”

The proposal calls for more than 470,000 Barred Owls to be lethally removed and is open for public opinion through January 16, 2024.

Suggesting such harsh measures is unsettling. Nature is, after all, survival of the fittest. A mantra repeated by Jim Fowler, former co-host of Wild Kingdom, a long-running TV show that increased ecological and environmental awareness in the U.S., when we interviewed him in 2017.

Jim pointed to a spot in his yard where a Cooper’s Hawk came in and nailed one of the birds at his feeder and reminded us it serves as a reminder that nature is not as nice a place as everybody thinks it is.

“Animals are fighting, killing, and eating each other. Humans don’t work that way, but nature does,” he says. ‘The predators take off the weak and sick so they don’t breed; that’s why everything in nature that survives is very tuned in and successful.”

Jim added that “it’s just nature being nature.”

East Coast Owls Vs. West Coast Owls

The Spotted Owl and the Barred Owl are of the same genus, so they look alike. A person unfamiliar with the species might struggle to tell them apart. They both have pale faces and brown-and-white mottled coats, but before the 20th century, the birds called home were the differentiating factor to these owls.

Barred Owls live in the eastern U.S., and Spotted Owls reside in the forests of the western U.S. A critical physical difference between the owls is their size. A Barred Owl is slightly bigger than the Spotted Owl, so it’s quicker to reproduce and less discriminating about where it calls home and what it eats.

Research shows Spotted Owl populations have declined by about 75% in the past two decades and continue to decline by about 5% each year, according to an environmental impact statement describing the USFWS proposal. The reason for the decline is attributed to Barred Owls.

Nature is survival of the fittest, and the Barred Owls are better fit for survival than the Spotted Owls. So their reward for thriving and acting as nature’s pest control is the murder of nearly 500,000 Barred Owls?

“They come into these areas. They reach high densities. They’re basically eating everything and competing with spotted owls for food,” says David Wiens, a supervisory research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Owl Culling

So, how does the USFWS plan to cull the Barred Owl population on the West Coast? 

The USFWS’ proposed management plan calls for killing Barred Owls across about one-third of the Spotted Owl range in Washington, Oregon, and California over three decades. The plan would remove the Barred Owl from 1%-2% of its current range.

Crews of trained shooters would broadcast an owl call, attracting those nearby. Then, equipped with spotlights and shotguns, they “eliminate” the owls.

It’s painful saying that out loud. We advocate preserving and protecting birds of prey by eliminating rodenticide (rat poison), lead, netting, and glass buildings (all perils created by humanity), and now the answer is to exterminate the same animals we swear to protect!

And what about the wildlife rehabilitators working tirelessly to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured Barred Owls back to the wild? Or those of us dedicating our time and money to help rehabilitators care for these animals?

Even Spotted Owls recognize difficulties among their species as some choose Barred Owls as their mates, resulting in hybrid “Sparred” Owls.

Management Plan for Spotted Owl’s Survival

The USFWS proposed management plan is a larger-scale plan of a previous experimental study led by Wiens to determine how well the strategy worked in five areas of the Pacific Northwest forest over five years. The results, published in 2021, found that killing 2,485 Barred Owls resulted in a 10% better survival rate for Spotted Owls in areas where they were removed.

The removal stabilized the Spotted Owl population but did not substantially increase it. Researchers think it requires more than five years to see Spotted Owl populations turn around because the birds don’t reproduce as quickly as Barred Owls.

Given Barred Owls’ dominance, researchers assume their populations would bounce back over time, and that is why the USFWS will likely have to “perpetually manage the species,” Brown adds.

Kessina Lee is the USFWS’ Oregon state supervisor and says wildlife biologists consulted an ethicist about killing the owls and that lethal removal is justified when the alternative is species extinction.

Nature Being Nature

Far too many times, we’ve witnessed humanity becoming involved in matters of the natural world, which backfires and worsens things. Nature is immune to the rules humanity lives by. They don’t have a court system with people dressed in black robes making decisions for their species. Nature’s rules are simple: it’s survival of the fittest.

The highest priority must always be preventing extinction. Science indicates this action is probably the best remedy, but it’s a no-win situation created by our own hands. It’s unfortunate to consider such drastic measures.

We don’t want to see the Spotted Owl become extinct in the western U.S., but punishing a species for surviving and thriving goes against the survival of the fittest. It’s a matter of adaption and something the Barred Owl is very good at.

In the wise words of Jim Fowler, “It’s just nature being nature.”

Do you agree with killing nearly 500,000 Barred Owls so the Spotted Owl doesn’t go extinct? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.


Leave a Reply
  1. You state incorrectly that all wildlife belongs to the usfws.

    All wildlife belongs to the state, not feds— with the exception of species designated as endangered or migratory ducks and geese.

    • I used the wrong terminology. The USFWS manages our wildlife, they don’t own them. Thus the term: wild and free.

  2. States don’t “own” wildlife in the way most commonly understood. When states have argued that their “ownership” of wildlife necessarily trumps that of the federal government, the Supreme Court called state ownership of wildlife a “19th-century legal fiction.” Hughes v. Oklahoma, 441 U.S. 322 (1979). (See pp. 907-911).


  3. Instead of culling barred owls we should curb logging, ban deforestation & grow more trees

    Can’t the Barred owls be relocated..

    What gives us the freedom to make this choice.. There has to be another answer.

  4. This is extremely one sided. I am not saying that I agree with the proposed plan but Barred Owls are not native to the Northwest. They expanded by clear cutting forest and allowing them to expand up into canada then out into the old growth forests over the last century or so. Unfortunately barred Owls are a “better” owl due to being more generalist and less preference on habit and food. It literally kills spotted owls and eats them when they call for a mate.

    If no intervention is done in regards to clear cutting of old growth forest and then planting them with a monoculture of trees to then later be clear cut, spotted Owls are doomed. In addition to that yes, barred Owls are occupying and literally killing the remaining spotted owls in that region, that once again ARE NOT NATIVE TO THE NORTHWEST. Please present actual facts and not your opinion. These estimates are also over a long time not just 500k in a year. These are based off statistical studies and population dynamics. From my understanding this is to prevent them from continuing to expand into south Oregon and North California where there are still decent spotted owl populations.

    And so you know I am not spewing bullshit, I have done both northern and mexican spotted owl tech jobs where we are searching for remaining populations. Almost every night in the NW we would record barred owls and not once in my time out of Tillamook did we find a single spotted owl that used to frequent those forest. In comparison we would find many breeding pairs of Mexican spotted owls where Barred owls have not invaded.

    This is a human caused problem and it sucks but yes, if humans don’t get involved the extinction of spotted owls will become a reality.

  5. No to killing owls across the west.

    Set up a territory in, say, southern Oregon where barreds would be killed to preserve spotted. A hundred square miles. Only there would nature be modified to save a species.

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