Any day now, the Northern Spotted Owl will have a final plan for its recovery. The iconic bird’s 20 years as a threatened species curtailed logging on federal forests, and shrank the timber industry to a fraction of its historic size. The new Recovery Plan hasn’t even come out yet, and it’s already drawn a lawsuit.
Steve Ackers is doing what he, and lots of researchers do pretty often. He's whistling. Here he is last summer, trying to find a pair of northern spotted owls in the Andrews Experimental Forest east of Eugene.
"That’s our spotted owl," Ackers said.
It can take hours of hiking and whistling to track an owl down. Multiply that across thousands of known owl nest sites over the 20 years the owl has been on the Endangered Species list -- and you’re talking lots of worn out shoes, chapped lips, not to mention, time and money.
The costs of tracking owls got federal officials -- like Paul Henson with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- looking for alternatives. Henson says federal biologists and land managers could have relied on the tried and true old way of accounting for owls:
"You know, owl circles and cruder estimates of owl presence, or doing expensive spotted owl surveys to determine whether owls are there or not, over a series two or three years at a time. And those are quite labor-intensive, and expensive," he said.
So, federal officials decided to get scientists together to pool their research for a unique collaboration.
Henson says the goal was to chart with a computer model how the owl is doing.
"We asked the modelers to collect as much data as they can, to use state-of-the-art technology, whether it’s computer modeling technology, or it's Google-earth," he said.
Henson says this technology wasn’t around when the spotted owl first appeared on the Endangered Species list. He says the technology - the modeling tool – can help his own agency, as well as the Forest Service and other land managers, forecast how activities could affect the owl.
"We do not read the models as doing those things," Ann Forest-Burns said.
Forest-Burns is with the industry group, American Forest Resource Council. Her group filed a lawsuit In January over the modeling – or more specifically, the team the feds put together, to build the model.
The modeling team’s work was not being done in the open light of day, as required by the Federal Advisory Committee Act," she said.
Forest-Burns has reservations about the information the model produces, as well.
The model has three main components. The foundation is a database of habitat information. On top of that is a program intended to test how habitat would respond to different things – like logging or conservation measures. And last is a population model, to predict the behavior of the owls themselves.
"I guess I have an on-the-ground person’s bias about modeling. We often find that the more you crunch data, the more removed it becomes from something that’s actually going on, on the ground. You can get into a garbage-in, garbage-out situation," she said.
Fish and Wildlife supervisor for Oregon, Paul Henson, says the model promises to be a significant improvement.
"This modeling process was built upon data associated with 4,000 owl sites. So it has an extremely high probability of being correct," he said.
But Fish and Wildlife’s modeling effort also has critics among environmentalists.
Doug Heiken is the conservation and restoration coordinator for the environmental group, Oregon Wild.
"All models are simplifications of reality," Heicken said.
He says the model minimizes one of the spotted owl’s biggest problems: the invading competitor, the barred owl.
"The models that the Fish and Wildlife Service has developed with the help of some experts for instance doesn’t consider the effects of the barred owl very well. It doesn’t deal with the fact that spotted owl habitat needs to have snags and dead wood, that the model can’t represent very well, because you can’t see it from a satellite," he said.
Fish and Wildlife officials say Heiken has it wrong. They say the model has lots of on-the-ground data, including information on the barred owl.
The reason anyone cares about the modeling is that it's more than data and charts. It'll help judge how logging or habitat plans affect the threatened owl.
And it will help create another document with potentially bigger impact than the Recovery Plan. A map of federally-protected areas called "critical habitat" is due out by November.
This image, provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows the data the modeling is capable of producing. Below are the plans considered.
NWForPlan: reserve network under the Northwest Forest Plan (1994).
MOCA: Managed Owl Conservation Areas – proposed reserves under the 2008 Recovery Plan (withdrawn).
92CH: Critical Habitat areas, published in 1992.
08CH: Critical Habitat areas, published in 2008 (under legal challenge).
30% Best All Lands: 30% of suitable habitat within the owl’s range (includes private and tribal timberlands).
70% Best All Lands: 70% of suitable habitat within the owl’s range (includes private and tribal timberlands).
30% Best Public Lands: 30% of suitable habitat on federal and state land within the owl’s range (excludes private and tribal timberlands).
70% Best Public Lands: 70% of suitable habitat on public land within the owl’s range (excludes private and tribal timberlands).