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.
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
The latest recovery proposal tries to incorporate new information about where spotted owls prefer to live (which is not always old-growth forests) and threats other than loss of habitat to logging, such as diseased trees, wildfires, and deadly competition from the barred owl.
"We've had years of intensive scientific study on the northern spotted owl, so we've learned a lot more about it, a lot more about the habitat it needs," says Phil Carroll, spokesman for the FWS's Oregon field office in Portland. For example, he says, in some parts of its range, it's not quite as dependent on big blocks of old growth as we had thought before."
That's how the FWS explains a recent proposal to reduce critical habitat from 6.9 million acres to 5.3 million acres.
Timber industry officials say this is a good first step. They also applaud new elements in the proposed plan: emphasizing that the barred owl, not habitat loss from logging, is the prime threat to the spotted owl, and giving local and regional US Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management officials more say about where habitat should be protected.
"We truly believe that the debate and the needs of the owl have significantly changed from when it was listed," says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry trade group in Portland, Ore.
"It was presumed originally that it was old-growth dependent and that it needed large undisturbed tracts of that habitat," says Mr. West. "When we finally got the technology to put these little dinky radios glued to their tail feathers instead of these backpacks that were causing them to have issues with mating and surviving, we found that they were using a variety of habitat."
"Whatever we do in developing a recovery plan and identifying critical habitat," he adds, "needs to have flexibility for the land managers and the biologists so that they can deal with where the owls are on the ground today to make sure what they do helps recover this species."
Many doubt that less is more
To wildlife activists and many scientists, that sounds like a step toward allowing more logging when the need may be for additional protected habitat to prevent extinction.
"This plan misses the mark in many respects, and it needs to be redone," Dr. DellaSala writes in his critique of the proposed recovery options. "Implementation of the plan is likely to increase extinction risks for the owl."
DellaSala, who was on the team developing a recovery plan, recently told Congress that "what was supposed to be a science-based plan was derailed by a pattern of political interference" by political appointees in the Bush administration.
"The unfortunate part of this thing is that this administration has chosen to reignite the timber wars, and the next administration that comes in is going to be inheriting a train wreck," he says in an interview. "In a nutshell, this is the key domino for toppling the protections in the Northwest Forest Plan, the old-growth protections."
At this point, the FWS figures the owl's recovery can be achieved in 30 years at a cost of nearly $200 million.
As for the barred owl, says FWS's Mr. Carroll, "the problem is significantly bigger than we had assumed."
But the prospect of killing this bigger invader "is not something we do lightly because they're still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and it takes a permit to kill one," he says. "Anything that's done will be done very carefully and very slowly and with a lot of scientific study."