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British Columbia approves shooting one species of owl to save another

British Columbia’s government has approved the shooting of one species of owl — barred owls — in a last-ditch effort to save the disappearing northern spotted owl population.

“While none of us like the idea of killing [barred owls], we all agreed that if the goal continues to be the recovery of the [spotted owl], then it is a necessary and potentially effective tool,” according to a 2011 internal email between members of the provincial spotted owls recovery team.

Northern spotted owls have been faced with extinction since the 1980s, and now there are only 10 of these birds remaining in the wilds of southwestern British Columbia, reports the Canadian Press.

What started as a problem with loggers cutting down old-growth forest has become a problem of competition with another species of owl: the barred owl. Barred owls are larger and more aggressive than spotted owls, as well as more adaptable. Barred owls also prey on spotted owls and sometimes breed with them to create a hybrid owl species.

“Barred owls have invaded all spotted owl habitat,” Ian Blackburn, the spotted owl recovery coordinator for the BC government, told the Canadian Press, adding that new spotted owls were found at nine of 17 sites where barred owl were removed.

In the past five years, the BC government has relocated 73 barred owls and okayed the shooting of 39. The government now has approved the shooting or relocation of barred owls within a five kilometer radius around confirmed spotted owl habitats or areas being considered for reintroduction of spotted owls from captivity.

“Without this, it is likely that the wild population would be extirpated before we have sufficient captive-bred young to release — which would significantly hurt the chances of survival for the released birds,” Blackburn said.

However, some say this desperate move comes too late to have much of an effect.

“This is what happens when you drive a species right to the edge of extinction and you don’t want to do the right thing, which is put aside the habitat it needs to recover,” said Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee.

The Canadian Press reports that 300,000 hectares have been set aside as spotted owl habitat, and a captive breeding program could see owls released back into the wild as soon as this year.

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