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Breeding Pair of Eastern Owl Species Spotted for First Time in Grand Teton

First breeding pair of barred owls recorded in park, Wyoming, has experts concerned over potential ecosystem effects

Wildlife biologists in Grand Teton National Park have discovered the first breeding pair the barred owl ever recorded in the park. Researchers are unclear about population size in Greater Yellowstone or what the owls could mean for the ecosystem, but have expressed concern over potential predation on less aggressive owl species. Photo by yvontrep/Shutterstock
Wildlife biologists in Grand Teton National Park have discovered the first breeding pair the barred owl ever recorded in the park. Researchers are unclear about population size in Greater Yellowstone or what the owls could mean for the ecosystem, but have expressed concern over potential predation on less aggressive owl species. Photo by yvontrep/Shutterstock
by Julia Barton

The full-bodied, baritone hoots of barred owls are an iconic sound of wooded swamps across the southeastern U.S. These birds—comparable in size to great horned owls—can be found in every state east of the Mississippi River says the National Audubon Society.

So, when wildlife biologists heard a pair of the distinctive hoots all the way in Grand Teton National Park earlier this year, it was no wonder it came as a surprise. Barred owls aren’t entirely new to Wyoming. According to a rare species observation database kept by the park, 12 barred owl sightings were reported between 1982 and 1999, and researchers haven’t actively been looking for them until now.

The key difference in the recent observation caught the attention of wildlife biologists: the sighting was not of a single owl, but a breeding pair. They’re the first known pair in the park as well as the state of Wyoming, Valerie Gohlke, a public affairs officer with the park, confirmed in an email to Mountain Journal.
“If you have a species moving like the barred owl that starts to disrupt that balance here, it can cascade to affect the entire ecosystem."  Dr. Katherine Gura, biologist, associate research director, Teton Raptor Center
The barred owl isn’t facing significant population threats, nor is it being forced out of its native range. Biologists theorize that the cause for its western expansion is due to anthropomorphism in the Great Plains that created a corridor allowing owls to reach the West, explained Dr. Katherine Gura, one of the world’s foremost owl experts and associate research director with the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming.

“They've been moving from the East Coast to the West Coast over the past century,” Gura told Mountain Journal. “That's largely due to anthropogenic activities. For example, planting trees across the Great Plains allowed them to move across to the Pacific Northwest where they've had an extremely detrimental effect on spotted owls.”

Barred owls are aggressive raptors with a profile that resembles a slimmed-down great gray owl and a wingspan of nearly four feet. The similarly-sized northern
This map shows the habitat for the barred owl. Dark purple indicates they are "common" in these places. Light purple shows where they're "uncommon." White means barred owls have not been recorded in these areas. Map courtesy National Audubon Society
This map shows the habitat for the barred owl. Dark purple indicates they are "common" in these places. Light purple shows where they're "uncommon." White means barred owls have not been recorded in these areas. Map courtesy National Audubon Society
spotted owl—listed under the Endangered Species Act—relies primarily on old-growth forests for habitat in Washington, Oregon and northern California. The new arrivals have wreaked havoc on the already-dwindling spotted owl population, Gura said.

“If you have a species moving like the barred owl that starts to disrupt that balance here, it can cascade to affect the entire ecosystem,” Gura added.

According to Zach Hutchinson, community science coordinator for Audubon Rockies, the few sightings in Greater Yellowstone aren’t necessarily cause for concern. However, he noted that once they arrived in the Pacific Northwest, barred owl populations took hold quickly. The owls are not a picky species, he explained, and easily adapt to varying environments so long as they find trees large enough to support their nests.

“We are unlikely to see any major shifts yet,” Hutchinson said. “The concern with this spread is that if there are multiple pairs taking up a lot of territory across Greater Yellowstone, they will compete for resources or possibly even predate upon native owls, such as great grays, that aren’t as aggressive or territorial.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month issued a draft environmental impact statement suggesting that barred owls be treated as an invasive species in Washington, Oregon and California to protect spotted owls. FWS has already used lethal management methods in the region to remove the non-native owls.

“[Historically] we’ve thought of invasive species coming from another continent, human assisted,” Hutchinson said, noting that the EIS will likely impact future conversations about invasive species. “The problem is that the barred owl didn’t just arrive, it’s been here using the landscape. It’s clearly a hardy species that doesn’t need a lot of help to try to expand.”

The pair of barred owls and their fledglings were spotted inside Grand Teton National Park by biologists surveying native raptors, Gura said, emphasizing the importance of researchers observing ecosystems to notice change. For now, she said, the task is surveying barred owls over the next few years to learn how many are in Greater Yellowstone and assess the potential risks they pose.

Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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