By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
The northern spotted owl's population continues to fall as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepares a recovery plan 17 years after listing the bird as threatened on the Endangered Species Act.
Wildlife managers had expected habitat protection on federal lands to bolster the population that floundered as logging wiped out the grayish brown birds' home in old growth forests stretching from British Columbia to San Francisco Bay.
Instead, the population has fallen at a rate of 3.7 percent each year.
"That's not particularly encouraging," said Eric Forsman, a research biologist with the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service in Corvallis, Ore., who has studied the bird. "The population appears to be still declining."
A 2004 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review of the owl lists habitat loss on private lands as a continuing threat to the species.
And another threat swoops down in the form of the barred owl, a larger, more aggresive bird that scares away and possibly mates with and kills the smaller spotted owl.
"The two species appear to be competing for space," Forsman said. "It's a more complicated picture than it used to be."
More common to the east, barred owls headed west of the Rocky Mountains in the 1930s and 1940s, first showing up in Oregon in the mid-1970s.
By the early 1980s, they had spread south along the west coast, now nearly reaching San Francisco and completely overlapping the spotted owl's range.
The spotted owl's steepest decline has occurred in Washington, where the barred owl has lived the longest on the West Coast.
Washington hosts between 1,000 to 2,000 pairs about half the number it hosted in the 1980s. The number of territories that the spotted owl occupied in the state also dropped, from 80 to 26.
About 2,000 pairs live in California and up to 3,500 pairs live in Oregon. Total population data estimates up to 8,000 pairs, or no more than 16,000 northern spotted owls.
"They're about gone from British Columbia," Forsman said.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada estimated about 100 pairs in British Columbia in 2000. That number has fallen to a handful fewer than 20 pairs likely from loss of habitat and the barred owl's strong presence.
"We don't know if spotted owls will eventually go extinct," Forsman said, adding that new management steps could help. "It's too early to just throw up our hands and say, All is lost.'"
In 1994, federal government agencies issued the Northwest Forest Plan for about 24.5 million acres of federal lands in California, Oregon and Washington. The plan aimed to guide timber production work while designating areas for the northern spotted owl.
It does not address non-federal lands, however, and that's where the recovery plan could help, Forsman said.
An Endangered Species Act listing also requires a recovery plan to rebuild an animal's population.
In 2005, the Seattle chapter of the Audubon Society filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department. The lawsuit cited an unreasonable delay over the lack of a recovery plan since the owl's 1990 listing as threatened.
The parties settled the case last year, with the service agreeing to draft a recovery plan that government officials said they had planned to complete anyway.
"We may have hastened the process," said Paul Kampmeier, a lawyer with the Washington Forest Law Center that represented the Audubon Society.
Last year, the service sought to hire an independent contractor to develop a recovery plan for the owl, but dropped the plan, citing high costs. A recovery team of government, timber industry and conservation representatives formed last spring and will meet later this month in Portland, Ore.
The service had aimed to release a draft of the recovery plan by the end of 2006, but has not yet completed it. A final version is due in November but officials at the service did not know when a draft would be available for public review.
Barred owl threat
The blueprint will outline goals and steps to recover the spotted owl population, along with ways to measure progress.
Researchers are considering such steps as killing barred owls to gauge the impact on the spotted owls' population.
"We need to decide what, if anything, can be done about the barred owl," said Steven Courtney, vice president of Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, a Portland, Ore.-based organization that works on ecological issues. "The situation's fairly bleak, actually, for the spotted owl."
Theories vary over the barred owl's western migration whether it marks a natural range expansion or comes in response to forest pattern changes.
"It doesn't really matter. We can't really stuff the genie back in the bottle," Courtney said.
So scientists seek to block the decline of an iconic Pacific Northwest species.
"I think it would be terrible to just throw up our hands and say, There's nothing we can do about it,'" Courtney said of the spotted owl. "We're all waiting on the recovery plan."
Northern spotted owl
Grayish brown with white spots
Hunt squirrels, rabbits, bats and mice at night using a sit-and-wait approach
Live in old forests with dense canopy, needing more than 2,000 acres
Form monogomous, long-term pairs but do not nest every year
Females incubate two eggs that hatch after about a month
Look much like the spotted owl, but larger
Eat small mammals, frogs and birds
Live in old growth forests
Use a mix of calls to mates and nest in tree hollows or other birds' and squirrels' nests
Source: Seattle Audubon Society