There is no question that the Spotted Owl is a conservation-challenged species living under ominous threat of extirpation. What seems to be at question, though, is why?
Why is this threatened species, under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), sliding down the slippery slope of species extinction if its critical habitat has been protected for the last twenty years?
Maybe because its federal protection has been increasingly and seriously eroded by the federal government itself- in collusion with monied interests who are in opposition to the conservation of our heritage forests and their attendant ecosystems.
In August of 2012, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) filed a request with the state of California to have that state declare the Spotted Owl as endangered. In their petition, EPIC aptly listed several demonstrable threats to the Spotted Owl (SO):
1. Destruction of habitat without the ESA-required “incidental take” permits
2. Decline of preferred prey species (flying squirrels and red tree voles primarily- both of which require old-growth forest habitat and food sources to maintain a healthy population)
3. Disease - the Spotted Owl is susceptible to West Nile virus and avian malaria, has a high rate of infections, and carries large parasite loads
4. Genetic – EPIC states that “the loss of genetic variation is an emerging threat” and this mirrors the findings of the California Academy of Science about the “recent genetic bottleneck” of the Spotted Owl
5. Predation – by Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, and Goshawks (which predation occurs more frequently due to the logged patchwork openings in the dense forest that encourage these raptors, and which seriously limit the safe havens of the Spotted Owl)
6. Lack of federal oversight in monitoring ESA violations
7. Lack of will by state agencies in enforcing or adequately regulating protection of the Spotted Owl
Under the category of “Other” - tacked onto the end of the list, and markedly an afterthought - is the increase in the Barred Owl (BO) population and its perceived potential as a threat.
Of special note is that EPIC did not fall in line with the politically correct and purposely deceptive pundits who would have listed the Barred Owl as a predator of the Spotted Owl.
There were two important and pervasive threats not mentioned in the EPIC petition.
The so-called Emerald Triangle of northern California and southern Oregon (a huge area infamous for illegal “pot farming” within the Spotted Owl protected habitats) is rife with rat poison. Rats being fond of pot, too, evidently. When the California Academy of Science did necropsies on the Barred Owls killed by the Green Diamond company biologist, they found that fifty percent of the BOs had consumed rat poison (through their prey). Only two bodies of Northern Spotted Owls had been found, and they, too, had consumed rat poison.
Also unmentioned as an insidious and very real threat to the Spotted Owl is the “shoot, shovel and shut up” mantra of the hostile populace of the Pacific Northwest. Lots of land, lack of law enforcement, lack of will to prosecute, angry folks, big money: owls disappear, no remains found... add it up.
Obviously, then, the Spotted Owl is floundering under a wide range of seriously negative issues. And yet, five of the seven EPIC points named in their petition are as a direct result of poor or no government management - that same government charged with the responsibility of protecting the old growth forests and its inhabitants - Spotted Owls being the “poster child”.
EPIC claims “the overall habitat destruction on Sierra Pacific Industries and other private lands in northern California [that would include Green Diamond Resources Company] has resulted in the abandonment of dozens of historic Spotted Owl territories (USFWS, 2009). Those that remain are mostly all severely deficient in suitable habitat, particularly nesting and roosting habitat made up of older forests.” EPIC further flatly accuses that “federal authorities refused to prosecute ESA violations”.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management have consistently, and at times provocatively, allowed transgressions against designated Spotted Owl habitats, nesting trees and even the owls themselves.
A timber-cutting plan by Sierra Pacific and Green Diamond, in which countless Spotted Owl nesting sites would be destroyed, and in which the USFWS was well on its way to approving, was stopped by a lawsuit filed by EPIC last year. After the publicity, the lumber companies withdrew their proposal.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Environmental Law Center, and the Washington Forest Law Center joined in a lawsuit filed in August 2013 against the USFWS and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). They have asked the federal district court for an injunction against the federal agencies to prevent their approving a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) filed by the Fruit Growers Supply Company (FGS).
The FGS wants to log out 39,000 acres of old-growth forest and kill by “incidental take” 83 Northern Spotted Owls in the next 50 years- most of it projected to be in the first ten years of the plan.
Is this conservation? Is this Endangered Species Act protection - of critical habitat, and the owls themselves? Is it no wonder the Spotted Owl is declining?
And, very important to note, the USFWS does make at least one demand on Fruit Growers Supply in its proposed Habitat Conservation Plan: FGS is required by the USFWS to report any Barred Owls and to “facilitate implementation of Barred Owl control measures deemed appropriate by the USFWS.” In other words, it is acceptable for the FGS to kill soon-to-be-designated-endangered Spotted Owls and destroy their forest homes, but it is imperative that the onus for SO decline is to be placed on the innocent BO and a case made against the Barred by fiat, with summary execution. Does anyone doubt that the “research” coming from such a plot would effectively “frame” the Barred for the assured demise of the Spotted Owl from FGS territory under these conditions?
The petitioners claim that the USFWS and NMFS failed to issue a biological opinion based on the best scientific data available - among other things. The basis of the lawsuit contained the following allegations: that the agencies unlawfully issued an incidental take permit; failed to prepare a legally sufficient biological opinion; failed to prepare a legally sufficient incidental take statement (basically calling the FGS document “uncertain” and “speculative” and accusing the agencies of lacking rationale and critical information); failed to disclose application materials; failed to disclose environmental information and consequences; and failed to consider the cumulative impacts of the proposed action.
These are just two recent examples of egregious acts by our tax-supported agencies in favor of wealthy lumber barons and in opposition to the will of the people as a whole. There are countless other predatory, destructive and aggressive acts against the old-growth habitat of the Spotted Owls that have not been known until after the fact - and which remain un-prosecuted.
So, what does this have to do with the Barred Owl and its relationship to the Spotted?
Dugger et al., 2011, state that “the effects of Barred Owls increase with a decrease in old forest habitat”. This also indicates the converse: the effect of Barred Owls decrease with an increase in old forest habitat.
The preservation of critical habitat is the key to solving most of the problems of the Spotted Owl. But that worthy goal has been assuredly and steadily eroded, thereby making the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 a sham. And using Barred Owls as a scapegoat is a travesty of conservation justice, and assuredly a smokescreen for the continued perpetration against our heritage forests.
Killing Barred Owls will not save our Spotted Owls. They will come, and keep coming. The problems of the Spotted Owls, unrelated to the Barred, will continue to deteriorate - and the species with it. Killing the Barred is a red herring, a fruitless venture, an ill-conceived violation of the natural order.
Eric Forsman, long-time Spotted Owl biologist, says, “To try to control Barred Owls across a large region would be incredibly expensive, and you’d have to keep doing it forever because if you ever stopped, they would begin to come back into those areas.”
So, the Barred would die by the tens of thousands while the Spotted Owl, its survival issues left un-addressed, would spiral downward to extinction, and then what?
Forsman has also stated elsewhere, “... We should not kid ourselves. To kill Barred Owls to answer a scientific question when you won’t use what you learn to solve a problem, well ...”
If you have learned something of value in this short essay, and in the companion pieces found at my Birding site at www.bellaonline.com/birding, then please take action today. Let your voice of protest against the killing of Barred Owls and the deliberate destruction of the Spotted Owls be heard. You can make a difference. Encourage others to join you.
As Margaret Mead, noted anthropologist of the last century, said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”