Spotted Owl Update

Larry Harrell lhfotoware at
Fri May 21 07:41:36 EST 2004

May 20, 2004  Land Letter

Report finds northern spotted owls still declining in Northwest 

by Natalie Henry

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Despite a decade of protection under the Northwest
Forest Plan, northern spotted owl populations are still declining in
the Pacific Northwest, according to a draft report released by the
Forest Service last week.

The news comes two weeks after the Fish and Wildlife Service released
data compiled over 10 years and analyzed by 16 international
scientists indicating that the marbled murrelet, another species
protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Northwest Forest
Plan, is in decline throughout North America and particularly in the
Pacific Northwest. FWS plans to decide the status of the marbled
murrelet within the next two months.

Northern spotted owl populations have dropped by 4.1 percent
throughout their range. The greatest declines occurred in Washington
at 7.5 percent per year. Oregon and California populations declined at
an annual rate of 2.8 percent and 2.2 percent respectively, which
Robert Anthony of the Forest Service said was considered "fairly

The Forest Service says it is uncertain about the overall health of
spotted owls in the Northwest.

The report, "Draft Status and Trends in Demography of Northern Spotted
Owls," did not analyze reasons for the declines but merely collected
catch-and-release data from 1985 to 2003 on 14 study areas in Northern
California, Oregon and Washington to determine the current
demographics of northern spotted owls, including survival,
reproduction and annual rate of population change.

Eight of the 14 study areas fall under management of the Northwest
Forest Plan. On those lands, owl populations were down by 2.5 percent.
The report is one piece of the Forest Service's 10-year evaluation of
the forest plan to help determine its effectiveness.

The population report will also help the Fish and Wildlife Service
determine whether the owl still requires ESA protection. FWS will also
consider genetics, prey, competition from the barred owl, habitat use,
habitat trends and regulatory mechanisms when determining the owl's

Susan Ash of the Audubon Society of Portland said the new population
information on murrelets and spotted owls indicates that the birds
might warrant an endangered listing, a step up in protection over
their current threatened status. Moreover, habitat protection is still
vital, she said. "It looks like we need to keep the Northwest Forest
Plan in place and protect more owl and marbled murrelet habitat in
order to protect the species into the future," Ash said.

Forest Service officials expected northern spotted owl numbers to
continue to drop during the first few decades of the forest plan
because spotted owls nest in mature forests, which take many decades
to develop. Indeed, many of the "late successional" forests protected
by the plan are not generally considered old growth and do not yet
have the characteristics owls favor. But they could gain those
characteristics in several decades, and the agency expects that
eventually the owl population will stabilize and even gain ground as
their habitat improves and matures.

But the declines in spotted owls in Washington did catch agency
biologists off guard. Biologists said they did not expect the
magnitude of declines seen in Washington.

The Forest Service would not comment on the reasons for decline, which
will come in a future report as the service continues its 10-year
review of the forest plan. "I think there's multiple things going on,
and it's not as simple as putting your finger on one thing," Anthony

But Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resources Council,
said the report seems to indicate that habitat protection alone will
not save the owl. "There's been millions of acres set aside for their
protection. Maybe there's other factors contributing to their
decline," Partin said.

For one, Partin thinks non-native barred owls are out-competing
northern spotted owls for habitat and prey, especially in northern
Washington. Partin also posited that forest fires in dry, eastern
portions of the Northwest are destroying owl habitat and therefore
having an impact on the population.

Forest Service biologist Eric Forsman agreed that there are studies
indicating barred owls may be pushing spotted owls out, and there is
one documented case of a barred owl killing a northern spotted owl,
but so far the data is inconclusive on how much of an effect barred
owls have on spotted owls.

The draft demographics report showed barred owls had a negative effect
in five of the 14 study areas. In most other areas, the barred owl
seemed to have no significant effect, except around Mount Rainier near
Seattle, where the barred owl appeared to have a positive effect.
Anthony of the Forest Service estimated that currently, less than 10
percent of northern spotted owl habitat contains barred owls.

Although the draft demographics report did not analyze the effects of
forest fires on spotted owls, Anthony said the only study areas
affected by fires were in Washington.

Further studies looking at habitat will be completed in the next six
to eight months to round out the Forest Service's evaluation of the
Northwest Forest Plan. Biologists will then synthesize the results to
describe how well the Northwest Forest Plan is meeting its objectives.

The draft demographics report will be peer reviewed within the next
three months, and FWS will use the final report as part of its
determination in November of whether the northern spotted owl still
needs federal protection.


A study on spotted owl genetics also came out last week indicating the
northern spotted owls are indeed genetically distinct from the
California spotted owl. Nevertheless, the two do share habitat in
Northern California and in some cases interbreed as California spotted
owls have moved north into northern spotted owl territory.

The genetics study, conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Geological
Survey, also indicates that there are no significant genetic
differences between Mexican and California spotted owls.

"This is the most extensive, detailed treatment of the genetics of the
spotted owl to date and covers all three subspecies in great detail,"
said Susan Haig, a geneticist with USGS. "These findings raise
questions about range delineations for northern, California and
Mexican spotted owls. The information can be used with population
estimates, assessments of habitat fragmentation, and other factors to
address the status and recovery efforts for spotted owls."

Northern and Mexican spotted owls are listed as threatened under ESA.
California spotted owls are not federally protected, but four national
environmental groups filed a lawsuit against FWS last week in an
attempt to force a listing.

Comment by poster: "Lumpers" vs. the "Splitters"?? Often, scientists
will split off a sub-species to glorify both their existence(s). For
example, just because a plant has a different colored bloom but is
identical in all other respects, even interbreeding; Is that enough to
justify a new species? Some say yes and some say no.

About the California Spotted Owl: The Forest Service in California
gives the bird <G> more protection than the Northern Spotted
Owl....even though it doesn't have to! The reason is that we don't
want the bird to be listed as endangered. Although I differ in how we
are to protect these birds, I do agree that we need to protect/restore
its habitat. Along with spotted owls, their habitat harbors other
sensitive species. However, their Protected Activity Centers (PACs)
are at extreme risk to catastrophic fire. Modern logging practices and
technology can "pick and pluck" individual trees to improve habitat
and make it more fire resistant, as well as healthier. No large trees
need to be cut in those PACs.

Something that wasn't mentioned in the article is the co-existence of
owls and goshawks. They both use the same habitat and often, goshawks
will use old owl's nests. The generally smaller goshawk will eat owls
for lunch.

In the end, it's not the individual birds that need special
protections. It's the habitat that is critical to the birds' survival.
We've seen that past logging practices, brutal and messy, have not
killed off the birds. There is no way that today's style of
eco-forestry can seriously harm their recoveries. "Nest stands" have
serious protections built in and also have very large buffers. During
the nesting period, no activities can occur to disrupt this critical
time in a nestling's life. Balancing the short term impacts with the
long term benefits of active management is a serious challenge for
scientists and forestry professionals. Does it really come down to
"let it burn" vs. "active management"? Currently, YES! "Active
management" is not allowed!

Larry,    former goshawk and spotted owl researcher

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