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Northern spotted owl's decline revives old concerns

Habitat for the famous owl is again a hot issue, as the US seeks to set aside less old-growth forest.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2007

Ashland, Ore.

Twenty years after the northern spotted owl became the prime symbol for endangered species and habitat protection, it's back in the news and steeped in controversy.

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Despite the bird's official listing as threatened and efforts to protect its home range, its numbers continue to fall from British Columbia to northern California. Now estimated to number between 3,000 and 5,000 pairs – and dropping by 3.7 percent per year – the spotted owl is at risk of declining to the point that the species would need to be "uplisted" from threatened to endangered, some experts warn.

And that, most agree, could reignite the "timber wars" of the 1980s and '90s, with lawsuits flying and activists tree-sitting to stymie loggers whose livelihoods depend on access to national forests.

"That would really tighten the restrictions, and nobody wants that," says Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist and the executive director of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy in Ashland, Ore. "To put us back on this path toward legal wrangling and loss of old-growth forests is not good for anybody. It's just opening old wounds."

To forestall that, the owl's slide toward oblivion would need to be halted.

So far, federal agencies have proposed new recovery plans, though none are yet approved. At the same time, the Bush administration wants to lift restrictions on logging and other human activity in 23 percent of the land now designated as critical habitat for the spotted owl, citing research indicating that the species does not always require vast tracts of old-growth forest. Then, too, something would have to be done about a feathered intruder into spotted-owl territory – the bigger, tougher barred owl originally from back East, whose arrival in Western forests presents a new and potentially deadly threat to its diminutive cousin.

All of this means the "Perils of Pauline" story of the northern spotted owl is far from over.

The intense focus on one small owl stems from the fact that scientists see the bird as an "indicator species" for the health of the forests and the animals living in them – especially since about 15 percent of original old-growth forestland is all that remains.

The plight of the northern spotted owl surfaced during the logging heyday of the 1980s, which left a patchwork of clear-cuts across the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. The owl was listed as "threatened" under the US Endangered Species Act in 1990. A year later, a judge blocked most new federal timber sales in western Washington and Oregon.

In 1994 the Clinton administration adopted the Northwest Forest Plan meant to protect owls and other species dependent on old-growth forests while ensuring a certain amount of timber harvest. The result was much less logging. Added to industry automation, it meant the loss of thousands of jobs.

Over the years, the agency charged with protecting endangered species, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), has been under legal attack from all quarters. In response to lawsuits filed by environmentalists, courts have ruled that logging plans approved for some national forests failed to consider the impact on old-growth forests where spotted owls are known to live. Other rulings, sought by timber companies and workers, have forced FWS to revise its designation of critical habitat.

Owl is less choosy than was thought