The northern spotted owl: 25 years later, has the Northwest Forest Plan saved the species?

Northern Spotted Owl - photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth - US Fish and Wildlife Service
Northern Spotted Owl

Jim Geisinger remembers well the day in 1990 when the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species.

Chestnut brown with white spots and dark eyes, the owls live in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. There are fewer of them now than in 1990.

“We were devastated and very frightened – we didn’t know what would happen next,” said Geisinger, a former logger who is now the executive vice president of a logging trade organization in Oregon. “It basically shut down the whole timber sale program.”

Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice Northwest, remembers the day differently. “There was a great deal of pride,” she said.

Court battles between environmentalist groups fighting to protect old-growth forests and timber companies had been tying up the courts since the 1970’s.

The listing of the spotted owl would be the catalyst for a new federal land management system that would preserve forests over 150 years old and diminish returns for the timber industry. The Northwest Forest Plan, introduced in 1994, would allocate over 20 million acres of federal forest land for reserves to restore the diminishing species.

The timber industry would receive less than four million acres to harvest.

“I can tell you with a very straight face that our industry has downsized by about 50 per cent from what it was before the owl was listed,” he said. Oregon has lost about 230 mills in the last 25 years, Geisinger said.

“I was struck by the fact that these national lands were being used for personal profit.”

Jody Caicco of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a different opinion of the forest plan. She thinks it’s been a good compromise between conserving the ecosystem of the old-growth forest and allowing timber companies to still harvest some lumber.

“I was struck by the fact that these national lands were being used for personal profit,” said Caicco. “I was pleased when the plan was instituted.”

However, despite the attempts to preserve the spotted owl, the population is decreasing by 2.9 percent per year. Although Caicco said they don’t have a definitive population number, an estimate from conservation group Defenders of Wildlife puts the U.S. population at less than 2500 pairs – which means approximately 75 pairs of spotted owls are lost each year.

Caicco recommends patience.

“It’s going to take a while for the forests to grow back up into suitable habitat for owls and other old-growth dependent species,” she said.

“The plan’s been a miserable failure.”

However, Caicco admits that wildfires have also been decimating the old-growth forest habitat – much more than originally predicted by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Geisinger agrees. “We’re burning up more spotted owl habitat than we ever logged,” he said. “The plan’s been a miserable failure.”

While loss of old growth habitat was the main reason for the decreasing population before the forest plan was put into effect, today the owl faces a much more familiar enemy: the barred owl, a close cousin who outcompetes the spotted owls for habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a study now to see if removing barred owls will encourage a comeback in the spotted owl population.

To address these issues, the Northwest Forest Plan is undergoing an inter-agency review this year. The U.S. Forest Service is holding “listening sessions” to hear suggestions from industry and the public in the spring of 2015.

While Geisinger doesn’t believe a return to pre-listing levels of harvest is possible, he’d like the slate “wiped clean”.

“We’d like to figure out the best way to manage the land, accommodating threatened and endangered species and sustaining rural communities who rely on natural resources to survive,” said Geisinger.

For Caicco, the most important thing is that the owl is still here. “If you lose a particular component of an ecosystem, you don’t know how it will affect the rest of it – including us. We are all connected, and if you start unravelling those connections, it could have unintended consequences.”

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