Federally listed as threatened in 1990 primarily because of habitat loss, the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) has continued to decline despite conservation efforts resulting in forested habitat being reserved throughout its range. Recently, there is growing evidence the congeneric invasive barred owl (Strix varia) may be responsible for the continued decline primarily by excluding spotted owls from their preferred habitat. We used a long-term demographic study for spotted owls in coastal northern California as the basis for a pilot barred owl removal experiment. Our demography study used capture-recapture, reproductive output, and territory occupancy data collected from 1990 to 2013 to evaluate trends in vital rates and populations. We used a classic before-after-control-impact (BACI) experimental design to investigate the demographic response of northern spotted owls to the lethal removal of barred owls. According to the best 2-species dynamic occupancy model, there was no evidence of differences in barred or northern spotted owl occupancy prior to the initiation of the treatment (barred owl removal). After treatment, barred owl occupancy was lower in the treated relative to the untreated areas and spotted owl occupancy was higher relative to the untreated areas. Barred owl removal decreased spotted owl territory extinction rates but did not affect territory colonization rates. As a result, spotted owl occupancy increased in the treated area and continued to decline in the untreated areas. Prior to and after barred owl removal, there was no evidence that average fecundity differed on the 2 study areas. However, the greater number of occupied spotted owl sites on the treated areas resulted in greater productivity in the treated areas based on empirical counts of fledged young. Prior to removal, survival was declining at a rate of approximately 0.2% per year for treated and untreated areas. Following treatment, estimated survival was 0.859 for the treated areas and 0.822 for the untreated areas. Derived estimates of population change on both study areas showed the same general decline before removal with an estimated slope of -0.0036 per year. Following removal, the rate of population change on the treated areas increased to an average of 1.029 but decreased to an average of 0.870 on the untreated areas. The results from this first experiment demonstrated that lethal removal of barred owls allowed the recovery of northern spotted owl populations in the treated portions of our study area. If additional federally funded barred owl removal experiments provide similar results, this could be the foundation for development of a long-term conservation strategy for northern spotted owls.
Diller, L. V., Hamm, K. A., Early, D. A., Lamphear, D. W., Dugger, K. M., Yackulic, C. B., … McDonald, T. L. (2016). Demographic response of northern spotted owls to barred owl removal. Journal of Wildlife Management, 80(4), 691–707. https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.1046
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