Feds OK Killing More Than 100 Spotted Owls

Just out of the nest, these northern spotted owls face an uncertain future. | Photo: USFWS Endangered Species​ program

A bird that was the focus of intense controversy a quarter-century ago may be in big trouble again in Northern California, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won't block a logging plan that it says may kill more than 100 northern spotted owls. The northern spotted owl, listed as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, has declined significantly over the last century due primarily to logging. But the USFWS says that even losing 103 spotted owls to the project won't further threaten the owl.

The so-called Westside Fire Recovery Project would allow commercial logging, prescribed burning, road-building and other activities on more than 42,000 acres in the Klamath National Forest, near the town of Happy Camp in extreme Northern California. The project area, which burned in the 183,000-acre Happy Camp Complex fire in July and August of 2014, overlaps designated critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. 

About ten square miles of the area would be clearcut, more than seven of which are in important habitat for the owl. And that, according to USFWS, means that the Westside project runs the risk of killing or otherwise harming as many as 74 adult owls and between 12 and 29 young, around five percent of the total northern spotted owl population in the Klamath Mountains and more than one percent of the entire subspecies.

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USFWS' findings came in the form of a February 19 Biological Opinion on the risk the Westside plan poses to the northern spotted owl. The Biological Opinion, or BiOp, is required by the U.S. Endangered Species Act to assess risk to the owl before the U.S. Forest Service can start approving the commercial timber sales that make up the salvage logging portion of the plan.

The Westside Fire Recovery Project is intensely controversial in the northern parts of California. More than 13,000 people have sent letters to the Klamath National Forest offices opposing the logging project. The Happy Camp-based Karuk Tribe, whose members' traditional life ways depend on intact forests, submitted an alternative post-fire proposal to the U.S. Forest Service. The tribe's alternative plan was rejected.

The northern spotted owl, one of three subspecies of spotted owl, lives primarily in coastal old-growth conifer forests from the northern San Francisco Bay Area northward to British Columbia. The owls generally subsist on a diet of woodrats and flying squirrels, and are also thought to be an important predator on the red tree vole, a species found only in old growth forests.

Listed as a Threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1990, the owl became a target of those resentful of protection of the Northwest's remaining old-growth forests during the so-called "Timber Wars" of the 1990s.  Logging and other habitat destruction is the primary threat to the northern spotted owl, which has been dropping in population by about five percent annually in recent years. Though population estimates are admittedly imprecise, USFWS conjectures that the total global population of the subspecies runs in the neighborhood of 6,600. 103 owls hurt by the Westside project would be between one and two percent of that total.

Adult northern spotted owl | Photo: USFWS

There's still controversy following spotted owls as they flit through what's left of the Pacific Coast's old-growth forests these days, but that controversy generally has to do with how spotted owls use burned forests. Along with its close relatives the California and Mexican spotted owls, the northern spotted owl was long assumed not to use burned forests as habitat. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service lists wildfires as a threat to the owl of approximately equal seriousness to logging.

But an increasing body of study indicates that spotted owls regularly visit even high-intensity burn areas, which often provide abundant food and habitat for the rodents and other small animals the owls like to eat.

This "foraging habitat" has been a controversial topic. The U.S. Forest Service and other old-school forest managers insist that spotted owls use burned forests little if at all. A newer generation of biologists and ecologists claims that burned areas -- also called "early seral forests" -- can provide important resources for spotted owls.

Fires can even improve spotted owl habitat long after the fire takes place. Spotted owls will occasionally build their nests out in the open or occupy abandoned nests built by other raptors, but they seem to prefer cavity nests -- nests in holes in standing trees. Old dead trees left standing by fires, called "snags," can provide such cavity nests for decades after a fire.

Though the USFS considers forest fires a major threat to spotted owls, an increasing number of forest ecologists charge that spotted owls decline after forest fires because of salvage logging in suitable post-fire owl habitat. After the Rim Fire burned more than 250,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite in 2013, biologists observed a significant number of California spotted owls using areas that burned at high intensity during the fire. Those areas were slated for salvage logging.

It seems the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is increasingly parting from its sister agency when it comes to the correct line on spotted owls' use of burned forests. A 2011 Recovery Plan for the owl started by listing fire as a major threat, but then went on to admit that some studies showed that spotted owls not only forage but actually breed in and near high-severity burn areas.

In comments sent to the U.S. Forest Service in 2015, Paul Henson, the lead USFWS staff person working on northern spotted owl recovery, urged USFS to rethink salvage logging in spotted owl country. "Low, moderate and, in some cases, high-severity fires maintain habitat conditions conducive for spotted owls, and we recommend minimizing salvage or harvest activities in areas where spotted owls remain post-fire," Henson wrote.

The BiOp for the Westside project would seem to continue that trend of questioning the Forest Service's assumptions, as the document details the notion that scientific consensus is by no means settled on the issue of owls and fire.

The Happy Camp Complex Fire in 2014. Photo: USDA

Opponents of the Westside Fire Recovery Plan, such as the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), also hold that salvage logging will likely worsen another significant threat to the northern spotted owl: competition for resources with barred owls, which tend to use the same kinds of habitat as spotteds do. Barred owl competition has been implicated as a major factor in the range-wide decline of northern spotted owls where the two species overlap. Loss of habitat to salvage logging and other human activity means conflict between the two owl species will be heightened, as owls battle for a dwindling resource. 

"The devastating one-two punch of habitat loss and barred owl competition are serving to drive the spotted owl extinct, and at an exponentially-increasing rate in recent years," wrote EPIC's Forest and Wildlife Advocate Rob DiPerna in late February.

In the USFWS' Biological Opinion, the agency admits that it'll be impractical to track the number of owls directly harmed by the project. That's partly due to the owls' huge home territories; scavengers would be almost certain to get to any injured or killed owls before biologists could do so. Direct injuries are mainly expected to befall juvenile owls whose nests are in in trees being felled, or which starve or are eaten by predators after the noise of chainsaws and other equipment chases their parents away.

But the majority of the owls that USFWS expects to be harmed by the project will be hurt indirectly, both by competition with barred owls and reduction in the suitability of the birds' forest habitat due to the Westside project. The agency expects that 19,700 acres of potential spotted owl habitat -- more than 30 square miles -- will be degraded due to the project.

And despite the agency's expectation that that 30 square miles of habitat damaged by the Westside Fire Recovery Plan will contribute to the deaths or injuries of as many as 103 northern spotted owls, USFWS writes:

USFWS is requiring that the Forest Service census areas for spotted owl nests before cutting down trees, and restricting tree-cutting in areas frequented by owls to trees that pose an immediate risk to public safety. But those common-sense requirements are unlikely to preserve the majority of the owls at risk from the project, and enforcement may prove difficult. 

Unsurprisingly, wildlife activists are not on board with the finding that killing or injuring more than one percent of the total world population of northern spotted owls won't contribute to the subspecies' further decline. "One percent of a population may not sound like a lot," forest ecologist Chad Hanson told KCET. "But when you consider that the population is already declining by four percent or more each year, adding another percent to that becomes even more harmful. We may lose the northern spotted owl to the death of a thousand cuts."

Or a thousand clearcuts.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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