Spotted owl threatened again, but not by humans this time

Spotted owl threatened again, but not by humans this time »Play Video

LANE COUNTY - Despite extraordinary efforts to save the spotted owl, its numbers are dropping and this time people may not be to blame.

The exact number of spotted owls is difficult to track.  No one knows how many there are but scientists document a downward trend.  The decline is most severe in Washington - about 7 percent a year.

Over two decades, thousands of jobs have been lost as millions of acres have been set aside for the spotted owl in old growth forests.  Despite the sacrifice, the spotted owl is rapidly disappearing and another owl may be the culprit.

In the coast range outside of Eugene, a pair of spotted owls is among those tracked for the last two years.

"One of the things we're beginning to see here is the birds do appear to be competing for old forest nesting habitat," said Dave Wiens, a graduate student at Oregon State University.

The competitor he is talking about is the barred owl, which is closely related to the spotted owl.  But the barred owl is larger, has a more diverse appetite and is so territorial that it responds aggressively to recordings of other owls blasted on a bull horn.

"As soon as barred owls showed up in this area, then spotted owls weren't seen after that," said Wiens.

Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist, was the first to identify the plight of the spotted owl decades ago.  He is now leading the effort to figure out why the barred owl spread from back east into spotted owl territory, and whether the two can co-exist.

It is research the government will use to decide whether to set more land aside for the spotted owl so they can save it from the barred owl.

There are 1,000 species that depend on old growth forests but the timber industry argues it is time to allow thinning of spotted owl habitat, including the harvest of wood debris on the forest floor. If that isn't allowed, the industry says the spotted owl habitat remains a tinderbox and will be destroyed anyway in inevitable forest fires.

"It seems ironic in the sense that we set aside all this land to protect the spotted owl thinking that we were doing the right thing and in retrospect, we're just protecting them to death," said Tom Partin with the American Forest Resource Council.

Among the options being debated to save the spotted owl is eliminating some of the barred owls, and that could actually mean shooting them.  Studies about removing barred owls by the barrel of a gun (to see if spotted owls return to former territories) are in the planning stages right now.

"I just don't see our population or our society wanting to go out and kill species like that," said Partin.

Forsman does not believe that killing barred owls is a long-term solution.

"So how do you save the spotted owl?  I think all we can do is continue to manage or protect habitat and let the chips fall where they may," he said.  "It may be that in some areas spotted owls disappear and maybe in other areas, two species are able to reach a sort of equilibrium."

Under the Bush administration, a new recovery plan was released just last year that reduced the amount of forest land set aside for the spotted owl.  But two opposing groups, the timber industry and 18 environmental groups, sued.  The timber industry's side said too much land was set aside and the environmental groups' side said it's not enough. Now, the Obama administration is going to have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service take another look at revising the plan.

  • Read the recovery plan for the Northern Spotted Owl
  • PowerPoint slides - Slides are courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.  The first slide shows the rate of increase of territories occupied by barred owls on the Coast Range Study Area in Oregon.  The second slide shows a map of Oregon with barred owl locations that were documented from 1974-1998. The third slide is a map of the long-term demographic study areas that the U.S. Forest Service uses to track changes in the spotted owl population (note... it is a bit out of date because two of the study areas - Marin and Wenatchee - have been discontinued).   The last slide is a couple of maps that illustrate the reserve network in the Northwest Forest Plan. The map on the left shows the entire area covered by the NWFP and the map on the right shows just the state of Oregon.