by Helen Caswell

As decisions about new logging operations are being considered in the state, conservationists are checking in on an infamous little owl. They’re finding that the news isn’t good.

The northern spotted owl is in greater peril than ever, and evidence suggests that it will take a huge amount of will – public and legislative – and require significant changes in Oregon’s timber industry, to prevent the species from perishing.

The owl in question is a nocturnal raptor that lives in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to lower British Columbia. It requires high tree canopies, old trees for nesting and open spaces beneath the branches under which to fly. These characteristics do not exist until forests are at least 150 years old.

In 1990, under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the species as ‘threatened.” President Clinton’s controversial Northwest Forest Plan was adopted in 1994, aiming, to protect crucial old growth forests for the spotted owl, while allowing sustainable timber harvest. The plan ignited one of the most publicized conflicts between environmentalists and the logging industry in history.

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Yet the spotted owl is in steep decline. In December 2015, the US Geological Survey reported that in approximately 30 years, (1985 – 2013) populations dropped in Washington by up to 77%, in Oregon by up to 68% and by more than 50% in California. The species has virtually disappeared from British Columbia. During that time, spotted owl numbers fell by an average of nearly 4% per year across their entire range.

“It’s a horrendous slide into extinction,” says Tom Wheeler of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) in Arcata. “We are heading towards an extinction event.”

Should Oregonians care?

The spotted owl is “an ‘indicator species’” says resource policy expert Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild. Indicator species provide evidence of the health of an ecosystem; when they are robust, so are their surroundings and when they fail, the environment shows it lacks crucial structural diversity.

This matters—if only because healthy forests are a significant financial resource. “In Oregon,” Heiken says, “our forest ecosystem provides tremendous benefits to Oregonians, from the huge amount of carbon it absorbs to address climate change, to recreation. Quality of life based on healthy forests is probably the most important economic development asset for our state.”

Responsibility for maintaining Oregon forests rests with the U.S. Forest Services and the Bureau of Land Management (for federal lands) while the Oregon Department of Forestry manages state and private forests.

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Why has the owl declined?

The consensus of most scientists is that the decline is due to the timber harvesting on federal, state and privately owned lands allowed by the Clinton plan. Logging depletes habitat where spotted owls nest, and It forces them to live in small clumps of forest surrounded by clear-cut where they are more vulnerable to predation and starvation.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that the last 190 years has seen an over 60 percent reduction of suitable habitat available to spotted owls by. Washington has already lost more than 90% of its old growth forest to logging.

Propelled by this habitat loss, another species, the barred owl, appeared in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s. Native to the East Coast, barred owls have a broader diet than spotted owls and can use a wider variety of habitat, including poorer areas damaged by logging. They are also larger and more aggressive than the spotted owl. They are ‘generalists,’ who can thrive in a fragmented forest landscape; the spotted owl is a ‘specialist’ that requires large areas of older forests. In Oregon, barred owls are now more numerous than spotted owls.

Who’s responsible.

It’s a complex issue, but Michael Donnelly, co-founder of Friends of Opal Creek, says it come down to bad policy and lack of political will. The designers of the Clinton Forest Plan (created in 90 days) built in the assumption that it would take decades for reserve forests to regrow enough to counteract the habitat loss from the logging the plan allowed. “The Clinton Forest Plan was based on bad ideas,” Donnelly says, “on the ludicrous premise that you could arrange for a 1% per year decline of spotted owls for 50 years, and the species would magically revive 50 years later.”

Another problem, according to Wheeler, is that the designation of the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened” is insufficient to safeguard them.

Efforts to turn the tide

EPIC recently filed a petition to ‘uplift’ the status of the spotted owl from ‘threatened’ to ‘endangered.’ “Scientifically, an ‘uplift’ is completely justified,” Wheeler says. “One of the ‘teeth’ of using the ‘endangered species’ determination is the legal ability to find a species is in jeopardy.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement a recovery plan says John Chatel, Threatened, Endangered and Sensitive Program Manager for the USFS. The dominant focus of the plan is the removal (shooting) of barred owls, a procedure being tested in several treatment areas. Results from a 5-year experiment in California showed promising results, though, after about a year in Oregon, Chatel says” it’s still way too early to tell” if the method will be successful here.

Is it smart to shoot barred owls?

It helps, but may not be sustainable. It also doesn’t address all the issues. “They’re blaming the barred owls for moving in,” Donnelly says, ”but the reason they move in is because the spotted have less habitat.”

Although EPIC takes no position on barred owl removal, Wheeler suggests shooting the birds is “an incomplete solution. If we just do barred owl management and don’t protect habitat, we still lose large blocks of spotted owl habitat.”

Shooting barred owls is not an ideal strategy over the long haul, either. “I have a hard time imagining people out there continually shooting barred owls for the next 100, 150 years,” Wheeler says.

Moving forward

Donnelly suggests that all conservation organizations know the truth: that federal and state laws provide insufficient protection for the spotted owl. “They know if they would sue [government agencies], they would get an injunction and stop all logging,” he says. “But these environmental organizations are beholden to Democrats and corporate funders who keep them afloat.”

Joseph Vaile, Executive Director Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, concurs that powerful economic forces, supported by Oregon’s Department of Forestry, oppose changes that might restore the spotted owl.

“Oregon has by far the weakest forest practices on the West Coast,” Vaile says. “Clear-cutting is rampant, often followed by spraying of toxic herbicides. It is doubtful that the Board of Forestry will change this [because] ‘Big Timber’ wields enormous power in Salem.”

Until citizens “stand up and demand change,” Vaile says, “the timber industry power and ties to the political elites will protect them from having to change their practices.”

It will mean life or extinction for the northern spotted owl and the forest systems that benefit all Oregonians.