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Owl Be Damned
Spotted Owl: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service knows that wildfire is the leading cause of spotted owl habitat loss, yet it opposes thinning forests to reduce the risk of fire.

By Jim Petersen
Date Posted: 5/1/2006

In January the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a call for proposals for development of a recovery plan for the northern spotted owl. Itís about time. The owl was added to the nationís burgeoning list of threatened and endangered species nearly 16 years ago. That it took so long helps explain why only 10 of 1,264 species listed under the 32-year-old federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) have ever recovered.

If my gut reading is correct, the owl wonít be No. 11. It is already doomed across much of its range, and the reasons why is well known among field biologists who have been observing the bird for some 20 years. More aggressive barred owls are pushing them out of their 21 million-acre home range, or killing them, or both. Worse, increasingly frequent, uncharacteristically destructive wildfires are destroying spotted owl habitat in fire-prone forests, most notably in southwest Oregon and northern California. Put simply, spotted owls are fighting a losing battle, a fact that has me wondering if the Fish & Wildlife Service isnít whistling past the graveyard.

Barred owls, not to be confused with common barn owls, migrated west from their native East Coast environs a century or more ago. No one knows why, and until they started killing already-threatened spotted owls, no one cared. Now they do. Just how long it will take the barreds to finish off their brethren isnít known, but the situation has become
so precarious that a federal biologist
recently opined that shooting barred owls might be the only way to save spotted owls.

Some biologists believe spotted owls still have a fighting chance in so-called "dry-site" forests east of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington. But there is a problem here too: absent the low-intensity ground fires that kept these forests open for eons, shade tolerant grand fir is pushing Douglas fir aside just as barred owls are pushing spotted owls out of their home range. And it is stagnating grand fir that is fueling most of the stand replacing wildfires in this region. So, minus a long-term thinning program, opposed by the same environmental groups that pushed the 1990 threatened species listing, the habitat potential these forests still hold will soon be lost.

Astonishingly, the Fish & Wildlife Service acknowledged this threat in their November 2004 Spotted Owl Status Review ó a review in which the agency admitted that uncharacteristic wildfire has been the leading cause of owl habitat loss since 1994. What remains a mystery is why the agency continues to oppose the quite manageable low-level risk associated with thinning, while accepting the quite unmanageable, high level risk associated with catastrophic wildfire.

How and why the government failed so miserably in its costly attempt to protect spotted owls is a sordid tale that illustrates what happens when science is politicized. Begin with the fact that protecting owls was never the objective. Saving old growth forests from chainsaws was. The owl was simply a surrogate ó a stand-in for forests that do not themselves qualify for ESA protection. But if a link could be established between harvesting in old growth forests and declining spotted owl numbers, the bird might well qualify for listing ó a line of thinking that in 1988 led Andy Stahl, then a resource analyst with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, to famously declare, "Thank goodness the spotted owl evolved in the Northwest, for if it hadnít, weíd have to genetically engineer it. Itís the perfect species for use as a surrogate."

Indeed it was. But to back their play, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and their friends in the Clinton administration needed a good story for the judge. They found it in three obscure reports: a 1976 masterís thesis written by wildlife biology major Eric Forsman at Oregon State University; Mr. Forsmanís 1980 doctoral dissertation and a 1984 report written by Forsman and two other biologists. All three reports suggested a strong link between declining owl populations and harvesting in old growth forests. Unfortunately, this hypothesis has never been tested. So despite 16 years of research, no link between old growth harvesting and declining owl populations has ever been established.

Moreover, we know little about the relationship between harvesting and owl populations. One such study ó privately funded ó infers an inverse relationship between harvesting and owls. In other words, in areas where some harvesting has occurred owl numbers are increasing a bit, or at least holding their own, while numbers are declining in areas where no harvesting has occurred.

This news will come as no surprise to Oregon, Washington and California timberland owners who are legally required to provide habitat for owls. Their lands, which are actively managed, are home to the highest reproductive rates ever recorded for spotted owls. Why is this?

One possible answer is that the anecdotal evidence on which the listing decision was based is incomplete. No one denies the presence of owls in old growth forests, but what about the owls that are prospering in managed forests and in forests where little old growth remains? Could it be that spotted owls are more resourceful than we think?

We donít know ó and the reason we donít know is that 16 years ago federal scientists chose to politicize their hypothesis rather than test it rigorously, to flatly reject critiques from biometricians who questioned the statistical validity of evidence on which the listing decision was based, to declare with by-god certainty that once the old growth harvest stopped owl populations would begin to recover.

No doubt one or more environmental groups will use the governmentís call for recovery plans to demand that even more habitat be set aside for spotted owls. When that demand is made, someone ought to remind Congress of a recent U.S. Forest Service estimate that an additional 1.1 million acres of federal forestland in the Pacific Northwest have grown into old growth status since the owlís listing. But owl numbers continue to decline, underscoring the need for federal agencies to move beyond politics and interagency bickering. Whatís needed now is a science based recovery plan that addresses the underlying reasons why owls are still in big trouble.

Perhaps the untold story of the northern spotted owl will lead the U.S. Senate to endorse changes in the federal Endangered Species Act ratified by the House of Representatives last fall. Among other things, the House version mandates immediate development and implementation of recovery plans for all listed species. To avoid repeats of the spotted owl fiasco, it would also be nice if scientists selected to peer-review listing proposals represented all sides of inevitably controversial questions.

It should not take 16 years to write a recovery plan. The fact that it did ought to prompt some very pointed questions about what went on behind locked doors in Portland, Oregonís U.S. Bank Tower ó sadly nicknamed the "Tower of Power" by government scientists who gathered there, beyond public and congressional scrutiny, in the spring of 1990 to sift through the pieces of their story. Congress ought to ask for their notes. Iím told they were shredded daily.

["Owl Be Damned" is adapted from a Jim Petersen essay that first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Feb.18, 2006. Mr. Petersen is publisher of Evergreen]

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