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Spotted Owl Surviving 20 Years After Controversial Decision

Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most controversial decisions ever for Northwest forests. On June 26th, 1990, the Northern Spotted Owl was put on the Endangered Species list. Scientists at the time were worried the Northern Spotted Owl was on the brink of extinction.

But loggers feared those protections would mean the end of their industry. 20 years later, both the owl and the timber industry are hanging on, as Rob Manning reports.

20th anniversary of the Spotted Owl’s endangered species listing



Oregon State researcher, Steve Ackers, is a little worried. There’s supposed to be a nest and a pair of Northern Spotted Owls among the 400-year-old trees on this hillside.

But we’ve been hiking for half-an-hour, and so far, no sign.

Steve Ackers: “We’re finding at least one or two nest failures a day. I’m really hoping this isn’t going to be one of them.”

Ackers says the trend isn’t unique to the Willamette National Forest. He’s heard troubling numbers this year from Roseburg.

Ackers: “They only had a 35 percent success rate. Usually they have a 35 percent failure rate.”

More broadly, scientists say the spotted owl population has dropped nearly three percent a year since the mid-‘90s.

Environmental attorney, Kristen Boyles, has defended the owl’s “threatened species”protections.

Kristen Boyles: “We should be happy if not delighted, but at least a little bit happy that we still have spotted owls around, and in our landscape because we still have old-growth forests that are functioning as ecosystems.”

It’s that connection between the spotted owl and old-growth forests that fueled conflicts between environmental groups and the timber industry. Loggers predicted old-growth protections that might be good for the owl would destroy their industry.

Jim Geisinger: “Jim Geisinger and twenty years ago, I was the president of the Northwest Forestry Association.”

Geisinger was among those timber advocates to oppose protections for big, older trees. The owl’s protected status in 1990 led to the Clinton Administration’s Northwest Forest plan, four years later.

Geisinger says that plan promised a balance of timber production and environmental protection. He says it only delivered one side.

Jim Geisinger: “The net effect has been about a 90% reduction in our federal timber supply. And when you take almost four billion board feet off the market, the economic effects on rural communities is just inescapable.”

Geisinger says that broken promise crippled Oregon’s timber industry. But much like the spotted owl itself, the industry isn’t gone altogether. 

Jim Geisinger: “It’s interesting that in spite of everything that’s happened to our industry, we’re still the second-biggest industry in the state, behind high tech. But with that being said, our industry is not what it used to be. Hundreds of mills closed, and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, and those jobs haven’t been replaced.”

Environmentalists say the owl was only one factor – and market forces and technology have been tough on the industry, too. Despite it all, Geisinger says Oregon remains the nation’s top producer of softwood lumber because loggers still harvest trees like the Douglas Fir.

Builders aren’t the only ones who like to make homes out of Doug Firs. 

As researcher Steve Ackers continues to look for this elusive pair of spotted owls, he finds what could be the bird’s nest.

Steve Ackers: “Really, the classic nest structure – really old trees with the top broken off. They’re almost all in Douglas Fir trees. I can think of one cedar, and one hemlock.”

Ackers whistles, to see if he can attract an owl.

A few minutes later – success!

Steve Ackers: “That’s our spotted owl.”

Ackers offers a live mouse and the owl’s mate appears. And then it’s a game of chase. Ackers follows the owls to see if they’re bringing the mice back to their young. They are.

Steve Ackers: “There’s fuzzball number one right there.”

Ackers concludes there’s only one fledgling. He briefly captures it and gets a band around its leg. The adult owls watch and squawk, but don’t interfere.

Scientists who have been studying the spotted owl the longest say the biggest reason the bird hasn’t recovered isn’t just habitat – it’s the arrival of the barred owl.

Scientists now say they underestimated the barred owl’s effect on the spotted owl. They believed that if they focused on habitat, the spotted owl would rebound. 

Steve Ackers says he sees what the barred owls can do.

Steve Ackers: “Nothing but circumstantial evidence at this study area but it does seem that they’ll come into a nest site and create a lot of chaos. And then often, the next time we try to get into the site, there aren’t any owls there at all, or just the barred owl is left.”

Timber industry reps, like Jim Geisinger, say the barred owl, rather than logging is the real enemy of the northern spotted owl.

Jim Geisinger: “Of course, the barred owl and its taking over the owl’s habitat is as big a threat as timber harvesting ever was.”

Federal officials are currently doing environmental reviews to look at systematically killing barred owls. Steve Ackers doubts that’s a good long-term solution.

Steve Ackers: “I don’t think it’s realistic that we would commit to an open-ended program of barred owl removal, and by removal I mean shooting. Because if you take them out of an area, they might be gone for four to five years, but they’re going to come back in. It’s like holding back the ocean, basically.”

He says the bottom line is still habitat. Ackers says spotted owls – like the pair he found on this day – can survive a barred owl’s arrival, if they have someplace to go.

Steve Ackers: “These guys right here – they were here from 2002 through 2007, and then barred owls moved in, and they moved across the river for 2008 and 2009. And then they came back.”

Timber advocates acknowledge that the owl needs habitat – but they question how much, and how old it needs to be.

Again, Jim Geisinger with the Oregon Loggers Association.

Jim Geisinger: “They do use habitats other than classic old-growth forests, and that they do in fact reside and reproduce in younger forests. Many believe that it’s the structure of the forest, as opposed to the age of the forest that attracts it to the spotted owl.”

Researchers like Ackers agree that the owl has shown some success in younger forests in California. But there’s more food diversity there. And there are fewer barred owls than in the Northwest.

The spotted owl controversy has spanned four presidential administrations. After a contentious court fight over the Bush Administration’s recovery plans, the Obama Administration wants to finish a new plan by the end of the year.

If the spotted owl’s history is any guide, one side or the other probably won’t like it.