SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - The U.S. government's plan to protect endangered spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest by killing and trapping 3,600 barred owls is "immoral, unethical and cruel," as well as illegal, an environmental group claims.
Friends of Animals sued Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe and two of Fish and Wildlife's regional directors in Federal Court.
"The barred owl removal plan purports to authorize the issuance of a scientific collecting permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act ('MBTA') to allow the FWS [Fish and Wildlife Service] to kill and trap barred owls," the complaint states. "Such permits are intended to allow scientists and educators to take birds protected under the MBTA for purposes of helping the species better survive in the wild. Here, the permitted action is clearly not for the purpose of scientific collection in order to better understand and conserve the Barred owl, but to kill it. Further, i[t] is inconsistent with the MBTA and the international conventions behind it to authorize the take of a protected species under the pretext of helping another protected species."
Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 to protect birds that migrate between the United States and Canada from being hunted, captured or killed without a permit for specific purposes, including falconry, scientific research and depredation, the complaint states.
Spotted owls nest in old-growth coniferous forests from California to British Columbia. They typically grow to about 17 inches long with wingspans of 45 inches, and are characterized by dark brown feathers with white speckles. The birds primarily eat flying squirrels, wood rats and bats, and can live as long as 17 years.
Barred owls look similar to spotted owls, but are larger, stockier and have mottled brown and white plumage instead of spots. They nest in mixed forests of large deciduous and evergreen trees and old-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest, and also have large populations on the East Coast. They build their nests in tree cavities and eat several kinds of small mammals, as well as fish, small birds and snakes.
Fish and Wildlife listed the spotted owl's northern populations in the Pacific Northwest as threatened in 1990, and designated 6.9 million acres of critical habitat for the species in 1992.
The primary threat to the spotted owls is habitat loss caused by logging of old-growth forests, the complaint states. Last year, however, the government reduced the amount of protected habitat "by emphasizing exclusion of forestlands from the designation and opening up designated land to logging for purported forest 'management," Friends of Animals adds.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies taking any action to prepare environmental impact statements that discuss all potential effects to the environment, as well as mitigation measures and alternatives to reduce such impacts.
In its barred owl removal plan, Fish and Wildlife determined that barred owls are threatening the spotted owl by competing with it for habitat. Friends of Animals acknowledged the crucial role habitat availability plays in the issue, but claims that the government "failed to address the need for additional habitat conservation or mitigation."
It says the barred owl removal plan "attempts to divert focus on protection of Northern spotted owl habitat by scapegoating barred owls."
Friends also says that Fish and Wildlife's environmental impact statement for the plan fails to consider alternatives other than taking no action and "varying levels of lethal removal of the Barred owl."
The group claims that the agency should instead designate enough habitat for the two species to coexist peacefully - a more "ethical and effective, long-term management strategy" than killing and trapping thousands of barred owls.
Though the plan does have a nonlethal removal alternative, Friends says it would take place only "where there is an interested organization that has adequate facilities and resources to provide a good quality of life for the barred owl."
"Since there are few opportunities for barred owl placement, most removal under the barred owl removal plan will be by lethal methods," the complaint adds.
Friends also claims Fish and Wildlife's September 2013 decision to issue a scientific permit to enact the plan violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act because the purpose of such a permit is to study animals, not kill them.
The group says the government violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and NEPA, and that it should be enjoined from going through with the removal plan pending an environmental survey that complies with environmental regulations.
It is represented by in-house counsel Michael Harris of Denver, Colo.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.