Dennis Anderson
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Government agencies often issue news releases that are largely devoid of news. But a notice sent some months ago by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) about a proposal to kill nearly 500,000 barred owls over 30 years in the northwest U.S. made lots of people take notice.

Including me.

But in my case, perhaps not for the expected reason.

True, when the government says it's going to kill a half-million of anything, it's a big deal. The culling effort would be an attempt to prevent the northern spotted owl, whose numbers have declined some 80% since about 2000, and perhaps the California spotted owl from going extinct.

Both are threatened not only by habitat losses but by a massive invasion of the larger and more aggressive barred owls (common in Minnesota), which can out-compete spotted owls for territories, which negatively affects survival and breeding.

Habitat changes beginning a century or more ago prompted barred owls to migrate from their range east of the Mississippi to British Columbia, Canada, from which they've flooded into Washington, Oregon and (less so) Northern California.

My curiosity was piqued upon reading the owl-killing proposal less by its intention than by its proposed removal method: Shotguns, loaded with nontoxic ammo, in the hands of trained sharpshooters, would be used at night to waylay the targeted owls, the FWS said.

No way, I thought.

My reasoning was simple: Living things don't like to get shot — especially not in large quantities.

Hunters, for example, who attempt to down multiple ducks and geese in specific locations quickly learn that a type of "learned behavior" kicks in among targeted birds, and they stop going to that area.

I saw a version of this survival technique years ago when from "spy blinds" I watched poachers on the Gulf Coast lure waterfowl to within shotgun range by dumping corn or rice near their hunting blinds. The bait on occasion fooled 10 or even 20 or sometimes 30 mallards and other ducks to shed their natural wariness. But soon after, remaining fowl in the area grew cautious and couldn't be tricked.

More pertinent to the barred owl proposal, which might become effective later this year, were experiences I've had with my friend Wendell Diller and the "long shotgun" he invented some years ago. Equipped with a 4-foot-long, ported, carbon-fiber barrel extension, it's also called the "Quiet Shotgun."

A sound specialist who works for a company that makes high-end audio equipment, Wendell was a crow hunter, who about 30 years ago began losing prime hunting locations within an hour's drive of the Twin Cities.

"I found myself hunting closer and closer to new homes, which was legal, but people objected to the sound of a gun being fired," Wendell recalled. "That's why I invented the Quiet Shotgun." (The shotgun conforms to legal firearms standards and is different than a gun, usually a rifle, quieted by a suppressor.)

While hunting waterfowl with Wendell using long guns, we never shot into flocks of more than three birds. The reason: In the metro especially, we're limited in places we can hunt, and if we shoot into large flocks, we know targeted ducks and geese usually won't return to those locations.

Wendell Diller of the Twin Cities is shown here hunting with the Quiet Shotgun he invented, whose barrel, with extension, measures about 7 feet.
Wendell Diller of the Twin Cities is shown here hunting with the Quiet Shotgun he invented, whose barrel, with extension, measures about 7 feet.

Dennis Anderson

One time while we were hunting, maybe 20 years ago, Wendell mentioned that he had shipped a Quiet Shotgun to his wildlife biologist brother, Lowell, in Oregon (where they both grew up) and that Lowell was using the gun to shoot barred owls in a federally authorized experiment. The study's goal was to determine whether removing barred owls benefitted northern spotted owls by allowing them to reside in their customary habitats.

That successful experiment preceded a larger FWS pilot program, which came to the same conclusion, and the service subsequently developed its much larger plan to kill 500,000 barred owls over three decades.

The idea, of course, is controversial, and some environmental groups oppose it. But as Karla Bloem, executive director of the International Owl Center in Houston, Minn., said, "There are no 'great' options. The FWS can do nothing or they can implement their plan. Without it, there's a good chance the northern spotted owl will go extinct."

All of which piqued my curiosity even more, because of my previously noted belief that survival mode kicks in sooner or later among targeted species. Wendell and I saw this not only while hunting waterfowl, but also when, under an agreement with Three River Parks years ago, we used Quiet Shotguns to shoot deer at night over bait to reduce whitetail numbers in various parks. After we fooled a few whitetails, other nearby deer wouldn't come to the bait.

Turns out, however, that such learned behavior doesn't exist among barred owls, said David Simon, who was among U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologists who shot about 2,500 barred owls during the government's pilot removal program.

"Barred owls are very vulnerable to our calling system, and we were 99 percent successful in our shots," said Simon, who stressed the shooters operated under strict protocols. "We didn't shoot unless they were in range, which was less than 17 meters. We only wanted rapid, humane kills."

Simon said standard shotguns likely would have been successful in removing barred owls. But he used a Quiet Shotgun — Wendell's version of which isn't commercially available — exclusively during the study.

"I like to be quiet in the woods, and with the Quiet Shotgun there's no recoil when you shoot and you don't need ear protection," he said.

Simon said the effort indicated that habitat sanctuaries can be preserved that benefit spotted owls.