Early detection of rapid Barred Owl population growth within the range of the California Spotted Owl advises the Precautionary Principle

  • July 23, 2020
  • by Wood, C. M., Gutiérrez, R. J., Keane, J. J., & Peery, M. Z.


Biological invasions are most practical to manage when invasive species population densities are low. Despite a potentially narrow window of opportunity for efficient management, managers tend to delay intervention because the cost of prompt action is often high and resources are limited. The Barred Owl (Strix varia) invaded and colonized the entire range of the Northern Spotted Owl (S. occidentalis caurina), but insufficient population data contributed to delays in action until the Barred Owl posed an existential threat to the Spotted Owl. The leading edge of the Barred Owl expansion has since reached the Sierra Nevada, the core range of the California Spotted Owl (S. o. occidentalis). We conducted passive acoustic surveys within 400-ha grid cells across ~6,200 km2 in the northern Sierra Nevada and detected a 2.6-fold increase in Barred Owl site occupancy between 2017 and 2018, from 0.082 (85% confidence interval: 0.045–0.12) to 0.21 (0.14–0.28). The probability of Barred Owl site colonization increased with the amount of older forest, suggesting that Barred Owls are first occupying the preferred habitat of Spotted Owls. GPS-tagged Barred Owls (n = 10) generally displayed seasonal and interannual site fidelity over territories averaging 411 ha (range: 150–513 ha), suggesting that our occupancy estimates were not substantially upwardly biased by “double counting” individuals whose territories spanned multiple grid cells. Given the Barred Owl’s demonstrated threat to the Northern Spotted Owl, we believe our findings advise the Precautionary Principle, which posits that management actions such as invasive species removal should be taken despite uncertainties about, for example, true rates of population growth if the cost of inaction is high. In this case, initiating Barred Owl removals in the Sierra Nevada before the population grows further will likely make such action more cost-effective and more humane than if it is delayed. It could also prevent the extirpation of the California Spotted Owl from its core range.