The shy and scared spotted owl


No one seems to be happy with the new draft spotted owl plan released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  We have outlined why the plan is bad policy, and the federal government received innumerable comments from interested parties before the public comment period ended last week.

But it’s not just timber companies and timber communities that are criticizing the plan for its bad science and false assumptions. Several prominent environmental groups, including the American Ornithologists’ Union, Society for Conservation Biology, The Wildlife Society and the Geos Institute, reviewed the plan and say it’s full of holes as wide as old-growth timber.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service just doesn’t get it,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the Geos Institute in Ashland.

Problem is — while these groups don’t like the plan or the science behind it — when you drill down to the details, they oppose the plan for the opposite reasons that timber companies and timber communities oppose it.

While timber interests want the federal plan to stay out of private forestland and not expand owl habitat, the environmental groups say the plan doesn’t protect enough habitat. While timber interests believe that smart and reasonable forest management, including thinning to protect from fire, will help protect the spotted owl, the environmental groups say thinning could hurt the owl.

What is clear is no one likes the spotted owl plan, and there is still a lot of work left to do.

Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) did a story this week that demonstrates the complications that a spotted owl brings. And this involves just trying to find an owl in the wild.

The spotted owl, while being a political flash point for 20 years, is actually quite shy. OPB tagged along with University of Washington researchers who were attempting to record as many owls as they could in California’s Trinity National Forest.

It wasn’t easy. The owls don’t like to come out and play, and it’s so hard to find them that researchers have trained dogs to sniff out the pellets of rodent fur and bones on the ground that the owls have vomited up. Yes, this very important research sometimes comes down to owl vomit.

But the spotted owl has bigger issues. The main reason the owl population has declined in the last 20 years is because of the arrival of a bigger and more aggressive species: the barred owl. And the researchers say the owl sometimes doesn’t hoot because it’s worried about being attacked.

Lyle Lewis is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in California. He says these days aggressive barred owls are showing up in the Trinity National Forest. And hooting can get a spotted owl into trouble.

Lyle Lewis: “In some cases barred owls may actually run them off. And even though its rare, there have been documented mortalities of spotted owls being killed by barred owls”

So the spotted owl has a new problem.  If it hoots, it might get whacked by a bigger owl. If it stays quiet, it might not be counted by biologists and could lose its real estate to logging.

And while the researchers desperately try to find a dwindling and terrified population of spotted owls, the cost of protecting the owls keeps going up.

The state of Oregon alone spends about a million dollars a year tracking about 100 spotted owls that nest in state forests.

That’s about $10,000 per owl every year. And quieter owls could double that cost.