Parting Gift: Trumpers Whack the Northern Spotted Owl


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The Northern Spotted Owl, the little raptor that lives in the Northwest’s remaining old-growth forests, where it became the focus of the 1990s “timber wars,” has gotten a parting kick in the beak from the fading Trump Administration.

Somewhat out of the blue, on January 13, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has decided to reduce the amount of critical habitat protected for the owl in Washington, Oregon, and California by 3.4 million acres, or nearly one-third.  “This revision” said Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) endangered species director, Noah Greenwald, is “Trump’s latest parting gift to the timber industry and another blow to a species that needs all the protections it can get to fully recover.” 

FWS had already decided not to list as an endangered species the owl, the little raptor that lives in the Northwest’s old-growth forests and will take food from a person’s hand.  The bird has been listed as “threatened” since 1990.  Its numbers have been declining since then, and its prospects look increasingly dire.

No one really disputes this.  In last month’s Federal Register notice that announced the FWS decision not to upgrade the owl’s listing, the agency found that “the stressors acting on the subspecies and its habitat, particularly rangewide competition from the nonnative barred owl and high-severity wildfire, are of such imminence, intensity, and magnitude to indicate that the northern spotted owl is now in danger of extinction throughout all of its range.”

Conservation Northwest science director Dave Werntz suggests that the glass isn’t entirely empty. If anyone was paying attention, the Federal Register notice should have raised awareness of the owl’s plight, Werntz says.  It left no doubt that if nothing drastic is done, the owl is toast.  The fact that the FWS then decided to do nothing doesn’t change that basic conclusion.  The owl, Werntz says, “is going extinct faster by the day.”

FWS doesn’t disagree.  Instead, the agency has said an upgrade to endangered status is “warranted but precluded.”  In other words, the owl truly is endangered but so are many other species, which are already taking up FWS time and resources, so the owl will have to get in line.  The FWS recently used the same rationale for not listing the monarch butterfly.  

CBD has issued a 60-day notice of intent to sue the federal government over its decision to put off listing or upgrading the status of the owl, the monarch, and nine other species.   The Endangered Species Act permits a “warranted but precluded” finding when a listing has been precluded by other pending proposals to list and “expeditious progress is being made to add qualified species” to the threatened and endangered lists. “

The idea that the owl’s upgrade to endangered has been “precluded by other listings under the Trump administration is ridiculous,” Greenwald says.  “Clearly, if they’ve only listed 25 species in four years, they’re not making ‘expeditious progress.’”

The notice of intent to sue argues that “the Trump administration has listed  just six species per year, the lowest rate of any administration since the Act was passed.” By comparison, “an average of 45 and 65 species per year were listed by the Obama and Clinton administrations, respectively.”

There are hundreds of species waiting for decisions.  Why should anyone pay special attention to the spotted owl?   If you’re of a certain age and your memory is intact, you probably don’t have to ask.  “Perhaps no late 20th century environmental issue sticks in Americans’ minds as well as the northern spotted owl and timber industry controversies that exploded from the Pacific Northwest into the national political agenda in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” begins a Yale Forestry Forum publication of 2001.  The earliest spotted owl researchers found that virtually every time they found a spot where the birds lived, that spot was about to be logged.  For environmental groups, the bird became a symbol and legal tool for saving the forests.  

Federal agencies blatantly broke laws to avoid protecting the owl land its habitat.  The courts basically forced the government to list the owl as threatened. A group led by the Forest Service’s senior wildlife biologist, Jack Ward Thomas, proposed setting aside millions of acres of habitat for the owl.  Congressional committees convened the so-called Gang of Four, including Thomas and Jerry Franklin, now an emeritus professor at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. That Gang looked at alternatives for preserving old-growth ecosystems, including but not limited to the spotted owl.  (Thomas subsequently became Chief of the Forest Service.  Franklin became known as the father of the “new forestry.”) 

U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer permanently enjoined federal timber sales in western Washington and Oregon, noting “a deliberate and systematic refusal by the Forest Service … to comply with the laws protecting wildlife.” Pro-logging demonstrators drove log trucks into downtown Olympia.   At the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, the EPA administrator, and the secretaries of interior, agriculture, labor, and commerce, went to Portland for an all-day session with scientists, loggers, local officials and others to discuss how to resolve the conflict.

The subsequent Northwest Forest Plan — which didn’t please people on either side, although it persuaded Dwyer to lift the injunction — was designed to protect hundreds of species found in old-growth forests.  It has profoundly affected the management of federal forests in the Northwest, and the need to protect the owl has also affected the management of state forests.

But more than 30 years later, the owl and many other species that live in the forest aren’t secure at all.  The scientists who proposed what became the forest plan knew that things would get worse for the owl before they got better.  No one foresaw how much worse.  By now, the handwriting has been on the wall for a long time.  The scientists figured a 1 percent decline was worst case.  A 2004 status review found Washington’s rate of  decline was more than 7 percent.   This wasn’t supposed to happen. What has gone wrong? 

Thomas had agonized over the effect of owl protections on timber communities, and there was a conflict between owls and jobs, a conflict that was real but over-simplified.  There had indeed been an unsustainable burst of logging on federal land in the last years of the Reagan administration, but there had also been a steady erosion of mills and timber jobs for decades.  The industry had come out of the early-’80s recession with fewer mills.  Mills that survived could cut more wood – but with fewer workers.  There were some predictions that the forest plan would have a significant economic impact on the Northwest.  It didn’t.  Individuals and communities were affected, but the regional economy scarcely hiccuped.  

Industry and supportive politicians, many of them from Oregon, have never stopped trying to let more chain saws into the woods. Greenwald notes that there has been “erosion of protection in Oregon on [federal Bureau of Land Management] land.” In addition, he says, “we’ve been fighting with the state of Oregon” over the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests.”  Those forests contain plenty of 70 to 80-year-old trees which “are not old growth, but in another 50 years, they will be” – if we let them.

Efforts to increase Oregon logging have drawn bipartisan support among the state’s elected representatives.  Commenting on bills introduced seven years ago by Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, the former Oregon environmental leader Andy Kerr – an invited participant in Clinton’s forest conference – said “if those bills were coming from Republicans, they’d be dismissed as wacko, anti-environment.” Although the economy had moved on from its old dependence on natural resources, he said, “timber still makes politicians crazy in Oregon.”

Even federal protection has been less than absolute: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found in 2004 that federal agencies had allowed logging in 82,000 acres of owl habitat and approved the “incidental take” of a thousand birds.

In the 21st century, Greenwald says it’s a little puzzling why people who know it’s a bad idea to cut the carbon-sequestering forests of the Amazon don’t seem to realize the significance of the great coniferous forests close to home.  “There are a lot of reasons to protect forests,” he observes. And “the carbon sequestration really starts to happen when the trees start to get big.”  Franklin says that the Northwest’s old-growth forests  “are the greatest storehouses of carbon that we’ve got.”

For the owl, it turns out that saving big trees won’t be enough.  The barred owl– a larger, less specialized bird not native to the Northwest – has moved in with a vengeance, elbowing spotted owls out of the habitat that has been saved for them.  (Once upon a time, barred owls lived only east of the Great Plains, which offered them no habitat and therefore kept them from moving west.

But people planted trees on the plains, so owls were able to move across.  They evidently went up into Canada, made their way to British Columbia, then came back down into western Washington, Oregon, and northern California.)  Both species prefer relatively low-elevation habitat, where the trees grow big and the living is relatively easy.  The barred owls basically force the spotted owls uphill.

Had barred owls not taken over so aggressively, Werntz says, the Northwest Forest Plan might have been adequate.  But they have. And the plan is not. 

The people who devised the plan knew barred owls were out there. “We just didn’t want to believe that the barred owl was going to be this much of a problem,” says Franklin.  “All of us who worked on the Northwest Forest Plan wanted to believe that the two owls would partition the landscape.  We were wrong.  We were doing wishful thinking.” 

How soon did that become obvious?  “Almost immediately,” Franklin says.  “We began to see more and more evidence of the [barred owl population’s] expansion.  After the Millennium, it became very clear.”

Years ago, Jack Thomas said that if people really carried about saving spotted owls, they’d take rifles, go out into the woods, and start shooting barred owls.  But, he said, it wouldn’t happen.  Actually, it just may.  Experiments in “removal” of barred owls began years ago.  The results haven’t yet been published.  Rumor has it that they’re pretty positive.  The FWS’s Oregon office says that so far, removing barred owls in a given location stabilizes the spotted owl population there. No one has seen spotted owl recovery yet, but at least whacking the competition has stopped the decline.  There doesn’t seem to be much choice.  “I think all of us really know what’s going on,” Franklin says.  “There’s no future for the Northern Spotted Owl without such a program.”

Even with a removal program, there’s no realistic chance that the Northwest will ever again be free of barred owls.  There are just too many of them and they multiply too rapidly.  And they are already just about everywhere, which means they can move back into most places from which they’ve been eliminated.  Therefore, if the government wants a barred-owl-removal program that will work, “it’s got to be strategic,” Werntz says.  It should look at places like the Olympic Peninsula.  After all, “there is only one way into the Olympic Peninsula.  That is a defensible space.”  Franklin agrees.  The peninsula is not only defensible, he says; it also contains “the largest contiguous densely forested area we have left in the Northwest.”

Needless to say, the prospect of gunning down barred owls is a little hard for some folks to stomach.  “Even die-hard spotted owl researchers who understand the science,” Werntz says,”are heart-broken about the notion of killing another raptor to save a raptor.”  

The barred invaders menace a wide array of species.  “What we have here is not just a threat to the Northern Spotted Owl,” Franklin says.  “This [barred] owl eats so many different things.  What we have now is a new top predator that is feeding on organisms that have never had to deal with this kind of predator  before –  amphibians, crustaceans, bats  – it isn’t just about losing Northern Spotted Owls.”

“I love the spotted owl,” Franklin says.  “It’s such a gentle creature.”  But, he says, “I’m more concerned about the whole array of prey” species that the barred owl has put at risk.  This has gotten a lot bigger than saving the spotted owl, he says.  And whether or not the Trump Administration was willing to call it endangered, “they know it is.”  In fact, “we all know it is. “

Stay tuned for the litigation.



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