Spotted owl habitat plan invites mixed reaction


After announcing the new spotted owl plan last summer (which we wrote about it here and here), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just released the preliminary habitat designation for the plan.

Like last summer, the focus of much of the media attention has been on the fact that as part of the plan, the federal government will shoot and kill competing barred owls to try to halt the continuing decline of the spotted owl.

A Seattle timber company, Green Diamond Resource Co., has been at the forefront of this idea, according to the Oregonian.

In Northern California, wildlife biologist Lowell Diller oversees a federally approved pilot project that in three years has killed 48 barred owls on timberland owned by his employer, Green Diamond Resource Co. In every instance when barred owls were removed from historic spotted owl territory, spotted owls returned.

“The evidence seems pretty strong in my mind,” Diller says. “I’ll go out on a scientific limb and say — at least in this region — it will work.

“The question then is: Is it ethically the right thing to do? Does society want us to do it? Is it feasible? Can we physically do it.”

Diller, who has monitored spotted owls on Green Diamond forests for 22 years, favors the experimental removal of barred owls.

“That’s the only way we will know for sure what our options are for recovering the spotted owl,” he says.

It’s clear that the migration of the larger, more aggressive barred owl into spotted owl territory is the primary reason why the smaller species continues to decline. But addressing the problem is difficult. Even finding spotted owls is hard to do because they no longer respond to recorded owl calls, according to KUOW. They’re too terrified that the barred owl will kill them.

“The spotted owl is becoming less responsive to vocalizations,” (said University of Washington Researcher Lisa Hayward). “We think (that’s) because we know the barred owl will attack with lethal force, in some cases. It’s not in the interest of the spotted owl to draw attention to its presence.”

The biggest problem with the new spotted owl plan, though, according to some timber leaders, is habitat. Namely, the federal government is using the new plan as a land grab.

Here’s Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, an Oregon timber group:

“Habitat is not the current limiting factor for the Northern Spotted Owl, nor is historic loss of old growth,” said Tom Partin, President of AFRC. “In fact, the amount of old growth on our federal forests is increasing while the spotted owl’s numbers are decreasing. Yet, FWS wants to designate as spotted owl critical habitat hundreds of thousands of forested acres already taken over by the barred owl. This latest proposal assumes a nearly two fold increase in potential critical habitat—up from 5.3 million acres to 10 million acres—that will be included unless we can somehow convince FWS to exclude it. We are faced with proving a negative. That’s backwards.”

Instead of adding owl habitat, the Obama administration should shrink existing habitat, Partin said.

“We hope FWS will seriously consider reducing critical habitat so that rural economies in particular do not suffer more than they already have as they try to climb back from their own near extinction as a result of the Great Recession,” he said.