Barred owls responding to a rival’s hoots in the forests of the Northwest may meet with ‘fowl’ play as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is planning to lure them with song and shoot them.

Killing barred owls will save another species, the endangered northern spotted owl, the FWS says.

The agency released its final environmental impact statement on the plan this week. It is proposing to cull 3,603 barred owls over a four year period, beginning as soon as possible. That would remove barred owls from four regions in California, Oregon and Washington, leaving 373 nesting sites vacant for spotted owls.

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The plan has been a long time coming, and the FWS and bird advocates have been struggling with the ethical implications of the project. The barred owl, after all, is not an invasive species. It moved West only decades ago and settled in. It is better able to survive than the spotted owl because it is bigger, more aggressive and not as particular about what it eats. Perhaps due to these reasons, spotted owls abandon their nests when barred owls arrive.

Spotted owl populations are declining throughout the west, where their numbers have fallen by 2.9 percent every year since 1990. The rate in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is closer to 7 percent. And some regions have population bottlenecks, which suggests related individuals are mating.

But barred owls are only the latest threat to spotted owls, which began on their path toward extinction when the logging industry began felling trees in old growth forests in the 1970s.

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For some observers, the fact that barred owls are native to the United States makes all the difference when it comes to ‘active’ management decisions such as culling. The barred owl is one of 111 species that have expanded their range due to human influence, specifically landscape change and a warmer climate. The extent to which such range expansions should be curtailed to protect another species is a question of ethics.

The FWS suggests that, “perhaps the important issue is not whether humans directly caused the barred owl expansion so much as whether humans have an obligation to address it.”

And we do, it states. That’s because human activity weakened the spotted owl population enough to make it vulnerable to new threats. Without us, they may have been able to compete with the invaders.

“If spotted owl populations were healthy and living in pristine forest conditions, it is possible that they could better compete with barred owls or at least survive long enough to allow for co-existence to develop between the two species.”

Of course, without us, the barred owl may not have expanded its range either.

IMAGE: Probably best known as the hoot owl, the barred owl (Strix varia) is the North American owl most likely to be active during the day. (Norbert Wu/Corbis)