Spared from old-growth logging, spotted owl faces new threat

Second part of a series. Read part one here.

ROSEBURG, Ore. -- Bureau of Land Management biologist Rob Horn carries a foot-long cylinder full of mice into a lush forest searching for northern spotted owls.

In his backpack is a small amplifier that can sound the owl's territorial call.

But the raptor needs no coaxing. Within minutes, the sociable male flutters up a steep mountainside to a moss-covered branch along the road.

Like the bell for Pavlov's dogs, human voices signal meal time for the owl and his brood.

Decades after federal agencies cordoned off millions of acres of Pacific Northwest forests to protect old-growth trees -- the owl's favored habitat -- the bird is as imperiled as ever.

While clear cuts are the historic culprit, biologists, loggers and policymakers are now pointing the finger at the owl's larger cousin, the barred owl, a more aggressive species that migrated west in the late 1950s and has spread south from British Columbia into Washington, Oregon and California.

As debate rages over an Obama administration plan to roughly double the spotted owl's critical habitat -- further restricting logging, critics charge -- federal biologists have quietly acknowledged that the barred owl now appears to be the biggest threat to the native owl.


The barred owl has complicated efforts to increase logging here in western Oregon, a top Obama administration priority, even as counties face the end of federal timber payments.

In the 350,000-acre Klamath Mountain Province, where Horn oversees a monitoring study, barred owls were detected at 10 times as many sites as a decade ago.

Last year barred owls were found at 45 sites and were nearly as prevalent as spotted owls, Horn said. All the while, spotted owl pairs have declined.

"And understand we're not even calling for barred owls," he said. "If we were actually to go out and survey for barreds, that number would be much higher."

Owl experts for at least a decade have suspected that barred owls are displacing or breeding with the native bird. Barred owls consume many of the same foods -- wood rats, flying squirrels and red tree voles -- as spotted owls and favor the same old-growth habitat. Barred owls have been seen harassing their smaller kin, and some have even killed spotted owls.

Worse for the native bird, the barred owl has been found to rear up to six times as many young and has a far more diverse palate, consuming crayfish, salamanders and other aquatic prey that native owls will not touch.

Barring a reversal of the avian order, the future appears bleak for the spotted owl. The population in Washington, Oregon and California has disappeared at a rate of nearly 3 percent annually, leaving 40 percent fewer owls than there were in the late 1980s. Populations have been nearly eliminated in British Columbia.

In Horn's Klamath study, the number of nesting owls that reared young in 2010 dropped to its lowest level ever. Average brood size -- 1.4 chicks -- was the fourth lowest in the past two decades.

"Last year was a very poor reproductive year for spotted owls everywhere," Horn said. "Like, literally, across the range."

Not always 'wimps'

Amid the threats, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a controversial plan to shoot or capture up to thousands of barred owls in hopes of aiding the spotted owl's recovery.

"We can't ignore the mounting evidence that competition from barred owls is a major factor in the spotted owl's decline, and we have a clear obligation to do all we can to prevent the spotted owl's extinction and help it rebound," FWS Director Dan Ashe said during the plan's unveiling in February.

A new three-year study by David Wiens, a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, seems to buttress his claim.

Wiens attached radio backpacks to nearly 60 owls -- roughly half on each species -- to track where the owls moved, what they ate and how they interacted. For two years, Wiens and three other researchers trolled western Oregon forests collecting thousands of owl pellets, and at night they marked each bird's location.

"We found very strong evidence that they were competing and that barred owls were outcompeting spotted owls," said Wiens, who published his study in March as part of his doctoral dissertation at Oregon State University.

It was the first time in decades scientists had studied spotted owls and barred owls at the same time and in the same place.

The study confirmed that barred owls seek similar forest types and prey species as spotted owls, in addition to confirming that high densities of barred owls can deplete those resources for the native bird.

And barred owls were found to be much more prevalent in Wien's study, outnumbering spotted owls more than five to one. The barred owls showed a 92 percent survival rate, compared with the spotted owls' 81 percent.

"Spotted owls weren't always the wimps," Wiens said, noting that some pairs he studied were adept at defending their territories from barred owls.

"But the problem is the difference in the numbers of the two species is completely overwhelming the spotted owl," he said. "Each spotted owl is dealing with up to five pairs of barred owls in their home range."

Playing God?

The barred owl removal plan is fraught with ethical and logistical questions that biologists are only beginning to answer.

The Audubon Society of Portland last month said that its members "intuitively recoil" at the thought of killing thousands of barred owls but that their first priority is preventing the spotted owl's extinction.

"We find ourselves in a proverbial 'no-win' situation pitting lethal control of large numbers of federally protected barred owls on one hand against the potential extinction of the northern spotted owl and the unique evolutionary lineage that they represent on the other," said Bob Sallinger, the group's conservation director.

Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, who leads a coalition of timber-dependent counties advocating for more logging, called the control plan "absurd."

"Put both of them on a fence 40 yards out there and take a gun and try to figure out which one to shoot," he said in an interview at the county courthouse. "This idea of professional hunters going out is ridiculous."

Others have warned of trying to override evolution or, as Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce put it, "playing God."

For one, it's unclear whether humans abetted the barred owl's arrival in the Northwest or whether it migrated naturally. Although the argument may be philosophical, scientists are unsure whether to call it an invasive species.

Various theories suggest settlers in the Great Plains suppressed wildfires, decimated the bison and planted orchards, all of which may have provided habitat for barred owls to hopscotch across the country. Others speculate climate change warmed the area enough to allow barred owls to colonize forests farther to the north.

Moreover, barred owls are yet to disrupt the region's forest ecology the same way that invasive quagga or zebra mussels, for example, have altered food webs and plagued power plants and dams across the country.

Lethal control would not be unprecedented. The National Marine Fisheries Service, for example, has authorized Oregon and Washington to kill hundreds of sea lions that congregate at the bottom of Bonneville Dam, where they feast on endangered salmon as they line up to climb fish ladders.

FWS since the 1970s has helped Michigan aggressively remove cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of endangered Kirtland's warblers. Humans also manage ravens, crows, scrub jays, raccoons, skunks, possums and coyotes.

But controlling owls in rugged mountain terrain may have fiscal and logistical limitations. And it's possible the owl -- which is far less docile and more difficult to catch than spotted owls -- would learn to outsmart its shooters much as wolves have learned to hunker down at the sound of a helicopter, said Paul Henson, supervisor for FWS's Oregon office in Portland.

"We'll never eliminate the barred owl," Henson added. "I can't say right now if it's doable."

Few others have attempted to cull barred owls, which are protected in their own right under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In one oft-cited study, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences in 2006 proposed shooting barred owls on private timberlands in Northern California to test their DNA to determine how they were different from owls in the east.

Not long after shooting about 20 barred owls, researchers noticed the return of spotted owls, a promising, albeit isolated, sign that lethal control could work.

But Wiens of USGS cautioned that the California experiment took place in an area where barred owls' numbers are still relatively low.

It's unclear how effective removals would be where the barred owl is more established and where younger, nonterritorial owls known as "floaters" could swoop in to take the place of those that are shot. Researchers currently have no way of counting nonsedentary birds.

"That's the real question with this removal effort," Wiens said. "Is that floater population so large it's going to overwhelm?" While little is known about barred owls in drier southern forests, some researchers believe those areas present the spotted owl's best chance at a comeback.

Critical habitat

Even if the removal is successful, scientists say old-growth protections will still be critical to the spotted owl's recovery.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in February proposed designating about 10 million acres of critical habitat, roughly doubling a George W. Bush administration plan that was tossed by a federal court (E&ENews PM, Feb. 28).

Not surprisingly, the plan enraged the timber industry, its backers in Congress and Oregon counties.

But in a controversial twist, the plan also recommends increased logging, including thinnings and concentrated harvest within critical habitat.

"Spotted owl critical habitat should not be a 'hands off' reserve in the traditional sense," the agency's draft habitat rule states. "Rather, it should be a 'hands on' ecosystem management landscape that should include a mix of active and passive actions to meet a variety of forest conservation goals."

The idea is to use "active management" to thin drier forests to resist wildfires, which many see as a growing threat to owls in a hotter and drier West. In moist forests, patches of clear cuts would leave behind small smatterings of old-growth trees, snags and downed wood.

While the owl may initially suffer from timber harvests, the "ecological forestry" projects will make habitats more resilient to future threats like wildfire and disease, officials argue.

"With climate change and barred owls, a certain amount of forest management is actually not only allowable, it's maybe encouraged and necessary for ecosystem management," Henson said.

The Bureau of Land Management, which will oversee much of the active management in critical habitat, says it will use ecological forestry to create early seral habitat that increases forest diversity (Greenwire, Aug. 6).

The projects would allow some regeneration harvests that leave behind individual old-growth trees and clumps of others while encouraging new shrubs and other plants that attract species like songbirds, butterflies, elk and deer.

But environmentalists are yet to buy into the plan.

Francis Eatherington, conservation director at the group Cascadia Wildlands, said the agency is using vague ecological goals to justify a politically driven agenda to increase logging. "Did they tell you four spotted owls would die because of it?" she asked, referring to one timber sale in BLM's Coos Bay district, which her group has appealed.

Early last month, a coalition of more than 50 environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and American Bird Conservancy warned in a letter to President Obama that active management in critical habitat is not supported by the best available science.

For one, wildfires are not becoming more severe in the owl's range, as agency scientists have argued, said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Ore., which also signed the letter. Spotted owls evolved with fire, so increased logging may not be necessary to reduce the threat, he said.

DellaSala praised FWS's decision to conduct an environmental impact statement to evaluate its barred owl removal plan but said a similar review is needed before the agency promotes logging in critical habitat.

"The spotted owl was initially listed because of rampant logging of old forests," DellaSala wrote in a March op-ed in The Scientist magazine. "Thus the precautionary principle should apply: look before you log."

In harsher terms, DellaSala said the Obama plan sniffed of "political maneuverings and election-year politics cloaked as 'new recovery' and 'ecoforestry.'"

Henson took issue with his critique, accusing DellaSala of comparing apples and oranges.

Contrary to the barred owl removal experiment, "we're not recommending an action," Henson said. "We're saying to the world -- Forest Service, BLM, private industry -- consider these concepts."

Site-specific environmental reviews will take place as agencies revise their management plans and when they propose specific timber harvests, he said.

DellaSala also overestimated the owl's resilience to fire, Henson said.

"People argue owls adapted to live with fire, and they did. But did they adapt to live with fire in a forest that had been highly modified over the last 150 years and looking at a climate change regime?" he asked. "In his attempt to simplify it, he made some significant errors."

Loggers still concerned

Many loggers say new habitat protections are unwarranted and give environmental groups new opportunities to file lawsuits challenging timber sales.

"The two largest threats to the spotted owl are the barred owl and catastrophic wildfire -- not the harvest of old forests," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council. "That practice stopped two and a half decades ago on Western forests, but the enviros like to lead you to think it is still happening."

Partin said the industry has a reason to be concerned after the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 scuttled intensive logging on all but one-fifth of the region's forestlands.

While the plan called for a 75 percent reduction in available timber, even the reduced targets were never met due to environmental lawsuits.

"You can be certain that the environmental groups will be suing that agency when a new project is planned in the critical habitat areas, and there may be the potential for adverse modification," Partin said. In addition, BLM and the Forest Service must consult with FWS before authorizing timber harvests in critical habitat, he said.

When the spotted owl was listed in the early 1990s, biologists predicted owl numbers would keep declining for several decades as old-growth trees continued to be harvested on lands identified as "matrix" or "adaptive management" and as trees matured into old growth in areas known as "late-succession reserves."

"It was a promise of growing new old-growth in return for a license to keep cutting it today," said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

But although the plan succeeded in creating significant new old-growth habitat, less than half of the allowable timber on matrix lands has been harvested.

Stahl said that's because agencies have cut regulatory corners, ignoring both federal laws and the forest plan itself.

"Each time they tried to do it, they tried to cut the corners," he said. "[Agencies] would do it without having first gone out and followed the procedures that the Northwest Forest Plan itself laid out -- for instance, surveying for other rare species before logging the forest."


With the beginning of summer, spotted owl fledglings began to emerge from their nests high in the western Oregon forests. If history is any indication, fewer than half of the young will survive their first year, said Horn, the BLM biologist.

Horn eyed two owls through binoculars as they perched side by side, watching him in rapt attention.

As he dropped a mouse onto a log, the female owl immediately swooped down, snatching the rodent with her talons in midflight.

The owl landed and gave the rodent a shake before carrying it to her tree-top nest, ascending limb by limb in a ritual known as "staging up."

There are fledglings in the nest -- one or two, or in rare cases three, Horn said.

Within weeks, they will be old enough to fly, albeit awkwardly. Horn will be back to give each of them a matching color band and number.

"If I'm doing my job, all the spotted owls in this area will be banded," he said.