Owl tales


Kim Todd’s feature – Conservation quandary in the August 4th edition – zeros in on key ethical questions which arise within the context of endangered species management in general and northern spotted owl (NSO) management in particular. But readers who are not familiar with the conflicts over forest management in the Pacific Northwest and northern California in the 1990s will need to know a little more about the history and politics of the ancient forests in order to fully appreciate what is at stake as the long-delayed recovery plan for the northern spotted owl lurches toward completion.

The first thing to understand is that management of the NSO under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and on the national forests are not synonymous.  The ESA is a single species law; but national forests are required by the National Forest Management Act to manage for viable populations of all naturally occurring species well distributed throughout the species’ ranges. To implement this mandate, the Forest Service long ago chose the northern spotted owl to represent all species which depend on old forest habitat for survival. The list of species for which the NSO is the “indicator” ranges from the Pacific fisher to little known salamanders, snails and lichens.

It is also necessary to understand that the Northwest Forest Plan protected the minimal amount of old forest habitat that would pass muster as sufficient for the survival not only of the NSO but all those other old forest species. And – in a deal Bruce Babbitt and the Clinton administration cut with the large timber companies -  protection for the NSO on private forests was minimized. Through HCPs granted to timber companies the “take” of many hundred of breeding NSO pairs has been authorized by the Clinton and Bush administrations. This has allowed private land logging to continue with minimal decrease in timber production. For old forest dependent species, however, the HCPs have been a disaster. From the beginning, federal managers have been managing for minimums – minimum habitat and minimum number of owls.  In biology management for minimums with no cushion for random events is risky; often it does not work out well.

NSO researchers have known about the threat from the barred owl for at least two decades. Even before the barred owls arrived in the Northwest, owl biologists predicted that – if old forests continued to be fragmented by logging – the new landscape created would favor the barred owl over its spotted cousin. So it should come as no surprise that barred owls are displacing spotted owls. The more open, fragmented forests were expected to also result in increased predation by great horned owls. The relative importance of barred owl  and great horned owl predation in the decline of the NSO is unclear.

With the focus on barred owls the role of habitat and great horned owl predation are pushed to the sidelines. This is not because of new scientific discoveries but rather the influence of politics – a subject from which Todd’s feature steered clear.

The timber industry and the biologists industry giants employ are heavily promoting the barred owl as the number-one threat to the NSO. They also promote the idea that we can “save” the NSO by killing barred owls. Industry strategists see the barred owl as the key to liquidating the last pockets of old growth on their vast Northwest-northern California land holdings as well as to regaining access to log old growth on the national forests.  Here’s an example of how this plays out on the landscape:

From where I write near the mouth of the Klamath River I can look up at the clearcuts and plantations of Green Diamond Timber Company’s northern California holdings. During the Clinton administration this Seattle-based timber company – formerly Simpson Timber – received a 50 year Habitat Conservation Plan that allowed it to “take” 50 pairs of  NSOs through continued liquidation of old growth forests on the company’s northern California timberlands. In exchange, Simpson-Green Diamond agreed to protect isolated and difficult to log old growth which provided habitat for another 8 NSO pairs. Now, less than 20 years later, the company wants to amend the HCP in order to “take” the remaining eight owl pairs by liquidating those remaining isolated patches of old forest habitat. In exchange, Simpson-Green Diamond proposes shooting barred owls.

Can we “save” the northern spotted owl from extinction by killing barred owls?  Possibly. But such a policy will not save the rest of the old forest species for which the spotted owl is an indicator. In order to do that we need large forest reserves, not fragmented patches of forest interspersed with clear-cuts and plantations.

The Bush Administration’s proposal to slash NSO critical habitat is part of a larger effort to do away with the system of large public forest reserves established by the Northwest Forest Plan. These national forest and BLM reserves remain the best hope for the survival of Northwest-northern California ancient forest ecosystems. Undisturbed older forests also contain the remaining salmon strongholds and they protect the drinking water on which our communities depend. The barred owl has not altered these realities no matter how much the timber industry and their shills in government might wish that were the case.