Owls Face Spotted Future

Sharon Guynup and Nicolas Ruggia
National Geographic Channel
July 22, 2004

A northern spotted owl swoops down silently from its roost high in a mammoth redwood tree, zeroing in on the unsuspecting rodent below. It is a rare sight. Despite their 1990 listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), these once-abundant nighttime raptors—a necessary check in the balance of these Pacific Northwest forests—are becoming ever scarcer.

"The most recent analysis we did suggests that overall, the population is declining," said Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Ore. and an author on the new report.

This assessment found that over the past decade, spotted owl populations have dropped by roughly half in Oregon's Warm Springs Reservation and parts of Washington—and by almost a quarter along parts of the Oregon coast and Cascade Mountains. Their numbers remained stable in just a few areas.

Loss and fragmentation of the owls' old-growth forest home was one of the reasons for ESA listing. Over the last two centuries, an estimated 80 percent of old growth forests have been logged from Northern California to British Columbia.

Save a Logger, Eat an Owl

The high commercial value of old-growth timber put the spotted owl at the center of one of the most contentious environmental debates in U.S. history: jobs versus owls. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a series of public, political, and legal controversies created hostilities in many small Pacific Northwest communities.

"Save a logger, eat an owl" became a popular slogan in logging towns, and some local restaurants even served spotted owl barbeque. Forest activists camped out for months at a time high in the forest canopy or "spiked" trees with metal or ceramic spikes that shattered sawmill blades.

In 1994 the Clinton administration implemented the Northwest Forest Plan, which set aside millions of acres to protect the spotted owl and other species that live in old-growth forest lands.

A New Wrinkle

Habitat loss may no longer be the primary threat to spotted owls' survival. "There is a new wrinkle in an old problem," Forsman said. That wrinkle is the invasion of the larger, more aggressive barred owl into spotted owl territory.

"The barred owl either eats [spotted owls], kicks them out of their habitat, or mates with them—and sometimes the offspring are fertile," said Steven Courtney, vice president of the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI) in Portland, Oregon.

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