To save one vulnerable owl species, the federal government has a contentious plan: killing hundreds of thousands of another owl species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said its proposal, released last week, might be the only way to save the spotted owl, whose population has rapidly decreased in recent decades due to competition over food and shelter from an invasive owl species. Shooting roughly 450,000 barred owls over three decades could help spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest rebound, the agency said.

The plan has divided wildlife advocates, with some accusing the agency of being reckless, while others say the massive owl hunt is necessary to save a species that’s being crowded out.

Robin Bown, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said settling on the plan wasn’t easy.

“We don’t usually get into this job with this in mind,” Bown told The Washington Post of killing animals. “But we also see the need to protect. And we have a legal responsibility to do what we can to keep our native and endangered species still existing on this Earth.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in December 2020 that northern spotted owls should be reclassified to an endangered species after their population dropped by about 75 percent in two decades. Some areas where about 200 spotted owls lived in the early 2000s now contain two or three of the birds, Bown said.

Wildlife officials considered several options to preserve spotted owls but said they wouldn’t be effective. Sterilizing barred owls would take at least a decade before a significant population decline; caging them would be expensive and difficult; and relocation wasn’t an option since wildlife officials on the East Coast said they don’t have room for the birds.

Killing the barred owls will make the largest impact, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The agency has at least 30 days to decide if it will proceed with the plan to shoot the owls, which would only be the latest project to kill invasive species in hopes of protecting other animals. Federal and state agencies have also killed Burmese pythons, feral hogs, nutria rodents and barn owls.

Bown said people trained in firearms would walk through forests in the dead of night with shotguns, flashlights and megaphones to replicate a barred owl call in hopes of attracting them. Once an owl has settled on a nearby tree, the shooters must identify it through the bar-shaped spots on its brown-and-white feathers and its call, which is known to sound like: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?”

If the shooter is within about 100 feet of the owl and has a clear shot, they can shoot. The carcasses could be buried on-site or used for research, Bown said. Officials said they’d aim to kill about 15,000 barred owls per year, starting as early as this fall.

The plan calls for recruiting environmental organizations, conservation groups, landowners, timber industry workers, tribes and state and local government agencies to help kill barred owls. The shooters must show documentation of training and experience in identifying owls and using firearms to participate, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Bridget Moran, a field supervisor in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bend, Ore., office, said she’s confident in the operation after the agency experimented with a similar plan between 2013 and 2021 in California, Oregon and Washington. Spotted owl populations stabilized in areas where barred owls were killed, the agency said, but they continued to decline in regions where barred owls were left alone.

Barred owls began migrating from the eastern United States to west of the Mississippi River in the 1950s, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency said humans probably paved the way for barred owls to migrate as they learned to suppress forest fires and they planted trees in the Great Plains and Canada’s boreal forest. The owls settled in British Columbia, Canada, before moving south to Washington and Oregon in the 1970s, when they interacted with native spotted owls, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The owls look similar: They’re brown and have small beaks. Barred owls are a bit heavier and longer than spotted owls, but they quickly disrupted their counterpart’s nests in old-growth forests, ate their food sources — flying squirrels, salamanders, woodrats, voles and mice — and sometimes killed them, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

When the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened on the Endangered Species Act in 1990, wildlife officials listed the barred owl as a potential threat to their population, Bown said. The barred owl population continued to increase in the Pacific Northwest until the invasive species and habitat loss were identified as spotted owls’ primary threats in 2008, Bown said.

However, some animal welfare advocates still consider the agency’s plan to be misguided.

Animal Wellness Action, an animal welfare nonprofit, said 135 wildlife organizations have signed its letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, asking for the plan to be revoked. Wayne Pacelle, the group’s founder, said he thinks barred owls will continue heading to the Pacific Northwest after the project, allowing their populations there to rebound. He said the agency is “trying to play God.”

Claire Catania, the executive director of Birds Connect Seattle, a bird conservation group, said she thinks the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan is necessary. While the spotted owl was once an iconic species in Washington, Catania said, most of the state’s new residents have only seen barred owls.

“We are deeply saddened that it has come to this point,” Catania told The Post.

Moran, the Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor, said she wants Pacific Northwest residents to have the chance to appreciate both owl species.

“This isn’t at all about one owl versus another,” Moran said. “This is about having spotted owls. If we do nothing, we will have only barred owls. If we do something, we’ll have both.”

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