Big-eyed and sweet-faced, the spotted owl may be the most controversial bird in the country. And possibly the unluckiest. Twenty years ago, it was a national symbol for one of the defining environmental battles of the 20th century—the fight over whether to log or preserve old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Now the spotted owl faces a new and even more desperate battle, one that has it staring straight into the face of extinction. The new threat comes not from people but from an invasion of its own cousin—the aggressive and highly adaptable barred owl—into the spotted owl’s last territories.
The future for spotted owls currently looks so bleak that wildlife managers in the Pacific Northwest have proposed a desperate plan: They want to kill thousands of barred owls. British Columbia approved plans last week to shoot barred owls within 5 kilometers of spotted owls. The U.S. government may not be far behind.
“It’s a vanishing sight, rarer and rarer,” said Dale Herter. We were standing 10 feet away from a spotted owl on a steep slope near Mount Rainier. Herter is a biologist who has studied spotted owls in the Cascades for 22 years and has documented the owl’s accelerating decline.
This spotted owl, a female, looked at us with her huge, darkly luminous eyes. Prominent facial disks, the wide circle of feathers around the eyes, add to the bird’s sense of openness and curiosity. Spotted owls are famous for their approachability, friendly charm, even tameness. They often fly close to people in the forest and perch placidly nearby.
“They could all be gone in a decade or two,” Herter said. Then he added in an ominous tone, “unless we kill all the barred owls.”
On June 26, 1990, the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Several studies had clearly linked the spotted owl’s decline to the logging of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Much more research followed, making the spotted owl one of the most intensively studied birds in the country. And the research has affirmed and illuminated the species’ heavy dependence on towering old-growth forests.
The listing ignited a controversy that reached all the way to the White House. President Clinton called for a forest summit that led to the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, protecting both the owl and the region’s spectacular old-growth forests. By that point, 80 percent of the former old-growth territory had been destroyed. Annual timber harvests dropped from 5.6 billion board feet in the 1980s to about 526 million board feet in 2004.
Loggers complained bitterly about the spotted owl, but the truth is, even without the additional scrutiny and protections brought on by the Endangered Species Act, harvesting at previous levels was no longer sustainable. People had been logging trees that were hundreds or thousands of years old, and these are slow-growing species. Clear-cutting—taking out every tree in an area—had nearly wiped out the forests on unprotected lands. There just weren’t that many trees left to log.
But despite the protection of their remaining habitat, the spotted owl population continued to decline, by about 3.5 percent per year. In Washington, where ranges are bigger, they’re declining faster, at 7.5 percent per year. The rate has been slower on federally protected forests, but the overall trend is ominous, unmistakable, maybe inescapable.
On the Olympic Peninsula, for example, there were 150 spotted owls in 1992. In 2009, just 13. In Dale Herter’s study area in the Cascades, there were 127 owls in the 1990s. Now, he says, there may not be that many in the whole state of Washington.
The new threat comes from the barred owl, which has moved into the Pacific Northwest and become a neighborhood bully. The species was once found only in the East, but over the past several decades, barred owls made their way across the prairies. The first barred owl was reported in Washington in 1965. In Oregon, 1974. In California, 1981. No one is really sure why they came. They may have crossed the prairie by using human-altered landscapes—managed forests, suburbs—as stepping stones across once-inhospitable grassland. Once they arrived in the West, some research suggests that they first took hold in logged areas and then spread to other habitats.