Barred Owl Vs. Spotted Owl


Old-growth forest habitat is essential for spotted owls, but with the barred owl as competition, it won’t be enough.

Barred owls are protected by law in their home range and to harm one would get you in big trouble. That had to be going through the minds of the biologists who were advocating for lethal control of expanding barred owl populations in the Northwest. The thought of having to control one well regarded species to protect a more endangered one didn’t set well with anyone, but there seemed to be little choice. If spotted owls were to survive and all the battles of the past justified, barred owls might have to be controlled. Maintaining habitat for the spotted owl was not enough in the face of this growing threat.

That was around 2012 and a study was initiated where, in certain areas, barred owls would be targeted for lethal control. Other areas would be left alone and the areas with and without control would be compared to see how controlling barred owls impacted spotted owls.

After three years, it was determined that removing barred owls significantly improved spotted owl survival and spotted owl numbers increased dramatically in the areas where the barred owls were removed. In addition, in areas where the barred owls were not controlled, spotted owls continued to decline and reached all-time low numbers by 2018. It was clear, if we want spotted owls, barred owls, at least in the Western old growth forests that spotted owls call home, would have to be controlled.

That opened up a can of snakes that biologists and the public struggle mightily with. Should we control one species to benefit another? That is a relatively easy question when the species causing the problem is invasive or introduced. The clear winner should be the native species. This was the choice for fisheries biologists when Yellowstone cutthroat trout were threatened by introduced rainbow trout in the South Fork of the Snake River. Limits were lifted on rainbow trout, sportsmen were encouraged to harvest them with a reward program and weirs were installed on tributaries to limit mixing and hybridization during spawning. This was also the choice when illegally introduced lake trout threatened Yellowstone cutthroats in Yellowstone National Park—get rid of the lake trout.

The waters get muddy when two valued native species are at odds, as with pelicans and Yellowstone cutthroat trout. In that case, research showed that pelicans were really impacting cutthroats, especially during spawning. Since declining trout numbers could initiate Federal endangered species listing for the Yellowstone cutthroat, something had to be done. For fisheries biologists the solution was clear—the pelican numbers had to be controlled—the pelicans nested on an island in Blackfoot Reservoir with no predators to stop their rampant and trout-fed growth. Wildlife biologists didn’t think that lethal control was such a great idea. Finally, a delicate compromise, one where pelican reproduction (oiling eggs to reduce chick production was one method) was reduced, more or less mimicking natural predation, but adults were not harmed.

So, we circle back to what seems to be the main issue in the barred vs. spotted owl debate. Is the barred owl an invasive species that should not be in spotted owl habitat? Or, is the barred owl just a good entrepreneur, taking full advantage of the habitat stepping stones created by humans that helped it to pioneer its way across that habitat gulf, the great plains, that once separated its home in Eastern North America from the West? Is it invasive (not there naturally) or just a better competitor?

We may not like the result of the barred owl’s ability to expand its range, but is that really wrong in any sense of the word? Perhaps it isn’t the fact that the owl moved west. Is the real issue that humans unwittingly subsidized the expansion and thus, the expansion is in a sense, artificial, as much so as if we had captured them and moved them into spotted owl habitat on purpose?

One might conclude that given the barred owl invasion, protecting the spotted owl’s habitat of old growth forests was a waste and unfair to the humans that suffered from it. However, realize that regardless of barred owls, if old growth forests go away, so do spotted owls. They are specialists (like sage-grouse) and won’t survive without a very specific habitat even with zero competition otherwise.

Generalist species such as the barred owl may eventually rule. They are more likely to be able to adapt in a rapidly changing world such as ours. It is likely that the barred owl isn’t done and we may see it move into Eastern Idaho someday. It is also likely that other generalist species will make similar moves over time. I don’t have an answer to whether or not that makes them invasive or expanding natives that now belong.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho