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Citing Declines, Groups Want California Spotted Owl Protected

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California spotted owl | Photo: Len Blumin/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Logging has seriously hurt the California spotted owl, say two wildlife groups who want the bird protected under the Endangered Species Act. In a petition filed Wednesday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wild Nature Institute and Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project are asking that the rare owl be listed as either Threatened or Endangered under the Act.

The groups say that while the owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) is doing okay on protected forest lands, forests where logging is allowed have seen decline in owl numbers for at least two decades.

That, say the petitioners, is partly because both the intact forests where the owls nest, and the patchworks of burned forests where they often hunt, have been subject to timber harvests that don't take the health of the owl into account, say the groups.

The California spotted owl is the only spotted owl subspecies not protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Northern and Mexican subspecies were listed as Threatened under the Act in 1990 and 1993, respectively, with the former then becoming the focus of pitched battles over the logging of its habitat in the Pacific Northwest.

Wednesday's petition describes five recent studies that indicate that logging in Californian forests has caused steep declines in the spotted owl population there, while forests where commercial logging is prohibited show no such declines.

Competition from the related barred owls is another factor in the spotted owls' decline. The larger barred owls drive spotted owls off their territories and can even kill them. According to the petition, spotted owls seem to hold their own better when their old-growth forest territory is left intact. Logging-related fragmentation of that habitat, however, seems to give barred owls an advantage.

In recent years, an increase in large wildfires has led to ramped-up logging of burned forests in California under the rubric of "salvage logging" and fire prevention. Logging in green, unburned forests has continued as well. Listing the owl would allow USFWS to designate Critical Habitat for the birds, which would force the Forest Service to take the welfare of the spotted owl into account when approving timber harvest plans on federal land.

"Forest fire is not the threat people think it is, yet logging on public lands in the name of reducing fire to save owls is rampant, and is having a devastating effect on this species," said Wild Nature Institute's Monica Bond, a spotted owl biologist and co-author of the Petition.

"It is estimated that there are less than 1,200 California Spotted Owl pairs remaining today, after having lost over a quarter of their population in the last two decades," explained ecologist Dr. Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project. "Their populations continue to decline. Under any formulation of conservation biology the time to list this species is now."

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