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The Breeding Centre in Langley, B.C., has 36 captive spotted owls, keeping them from being considered to be extirpated in Canada.Handout

The British Columbia government has shot and killed 80 barred owls since 2007 as part of a program that is intended to help prevent the extinction of the Northern spotted owl in Canada.

The country’s population of spotted owls has continued its catastrophic decline. As of last fall, there was one spotted owl remaining in the wild, a lone female in the Fraser Canyon near Hope that hasn’t been found since.

However, the province maintains that the lethal removal of barred owls, a natural competitor of spotted owls, is still required. It pins its hopes on a captive breeding program run by the B.C. Conservation Foundation that could one day see spotted owls repopulate the remaining old growth forests in southwestern B.C.

The barred owl, with its distinctive “who-cooks-for-you” hoot, is an increasingly common sight in Canada. It is native to Eastern Canada, but has expanded its range across the country over the past century. It was first observed in B.C. in 1947, and is now found in most parts of the province.

Wildlife management officials in B.C. have declared the barred owl an invasive species, and provided the statistics on lethal removals to The Globe and Mail on request. But some conservationists call the strategy a misdirection – they say the government is scapegoating another species, when the real problem is logging in the old growth forests that are critical to the spotted owl’s survival.

The spotted owl’s numbers have been falling for 50 years, as old growth forests disappear. There were an estimated population of 500 breeding pairs in B.C. before European settlement.

Today, the only reason they are not considered to be extirpated in Canada is because of the Breeding Centre in Langley, B.C., which currently houses 36 captive spotted owls.

The federal government is facing a lawsuit for failing to act to protect the spotted owl, which was identified as endangered in 1986. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault declared in February that the species is facing imminent threats to its survival, and promised to seek an emergency order that could allow Ottawa to prohibit logging and other industrial activity in critical habitat protections in B.C.

However, that cabinet order has yet not been issued.

Joe Foy of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, one of the organizations suing Ottawa, said an emergency order would put the federal government in charge of spotted owl habitat in B.C., overriding provincial jurisdiction over forestry.

“And we argue that that’s exactly what’s needed,” he said in an interview. “I was just out on some of these proposed cut blocks that are mapped as critical habitat, and some of them have been logged, and some of them are being logged right now.”

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A Northern spotted owl is shown at the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program in Langley, B.C. Over the next 10 years, the province is set to release 50 breeding pairs into the wild, with the expectation that 10 will survive.Handout

The B.C. government has deferred logging in two Fraser Canyon watersheds that are most viable for the spotted owl – including the valley where they are still trying to find the lone wild female that was last detected in 2022. The province says it has also protected enough old growth forests to support a future population of 125 breeding pairs.

But Mr. Guilbeault’s department found there are over 2,500 hectares of spotted owl critical habitat that have a high potential to be harvested over the next year, which would derail recovery objectives.

Ottawa released a draft protection plan for the spotted owl in January, which blames both habitat loss and the closely-related barred owl.

It notes that prohibiting industrial activity is “technically feasible,” but removing the avian competition is a tougher task.

The recovery plan proposes a 50-year timeline. B.C. – the only place in Canada where the spotted owl has been found – must maintain sufficient critical habitat to support, eventually, 250 breeding pairs. And the province must “immediately cease human-caused threats where spotted owls are detected.”

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Over the next 10 years, the province is to release 50 breeding pairs into the wild, with the expectation that 10 will survive. The plan warns that unless the spotted owl’s critical habitat is protected, there will be no end to the need to killed barred owls: “Without habitat protection, a high level of investment in barred owl control would need to be sustained in perpetuity.”

Kristina Lensky, director of resource stewardship operations for the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship and Fisheries, said there is good reason to believe the spotted owl won’t go extinct. “We’re not even close to making that call yet,” she said. “Through the lens of population viability, with both the wild female and the captive population, the population is growing.”

While the province has not got enough data to show that barred owl culls are effective, she said the largest study of the practice in the U.S. shows that removal of barred owls in northern California had a positive impact on spotted owls, stopping their long-term population declines.

The province’s spotted owl breeding program, which is run in partnership with the Spuzzum First Nation, released three males last summer. One was hit by a train and returned to the facility, and the other two were found dead in May.

Ms. Lensky said the fact that the owls survived a first winter in the wild should be considered a success. “We learned a lot, and we’ll be applying those learning to adapt the next releases that we do.”

With additional releases in the works, she said, the barred owls still need to be removed. “We are prepping the environment that we will be releasing them into by removing barred owls from those areas,” she said. “So when they when we do release them, it’s not yet another thing they have to overcome.”

Mr. Foy, who has been campaigning to save the spotted owl and its habitat since the 1990s, is not impressed. “I’ve always considered the spotted owls story to be a murder mystery, with those responsible doing everything they can to hide their acts.”

In this mystery, he said, the barred owl has emerged as a convenient fall guy for decades of logging.

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