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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Killing One Type Of Owl To Save Another In Northern California

HUMBOLDT COUNTY (KPIX 5) -- Killing one species to save another sounds like a drastic solution, but that's exactly what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is doing in California to protect the Spotted Owl from a predator that happens to be its distant cousin, the Barred Owl.

On the Hoopa Indian Reservation near the Oregon border, it's owl country, but not the kind Mark Higley wants to see.

The tribe's resident biologist is tracking an invasive species from the east called the barred owl. "Up to the ridge line we have been getting barred owl responses," he said.

At first the birds were a novelty, but now they're a huge problem because they are taking over the nesting territory of the native spotted owl, a threatened species. Spotted owl numbers have dropped as much as 80-percent in just the last 20 years.

So Mark and his research team are taking drastic action, by using recorded calls to lure the barred owls in, and shoot them. "You want to make sure that you take a clean shot where you know you are going to have a clean kill and not wound birds and have them suffer," he said.

It's mating season now so the shooting is on hold. "The permit that we have states that we won't orphan any young," said Higley. But this past winter Mark's team gunned down 71 barred owls.

It's all part of an experiment recently approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The plan is to kill 3,600 barred owls over the next four years in California, Oregon and Washington.

"I thought it was ridiculous," said Jennifer Barnes. She's an attorney with the animal rights group Friends of Animals. "As soon as they stop the shooting more of the owls will come in," she said.

Her group has filed a lawsuit to stop the killings, claiming barred owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

But once you meet a spotted owl face to face it's easy to understand the urge to protect them. KPIX 5 followed Mark on a hike, along with Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Bown, to one of the last two spotted owl nests on the reservation.

All it took was a mouse to lure one of the creatures out.

She says to save them, "lethal removal" of their aggressive cousins is the only option. "We asked the states back east if they would like some of them back, but they really don't have any place to put them," she said.

Mark admits it's not easy. "Oh its awful, I mean I am a biologist, the barred owl is a wonderful species, it's a spectacular bird. The only reason I am doing this is that I feel it's an invasive species," he said.

So this fall he plans to be on the front lines again, killing one bird to save another.

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