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Endangered Oregon: The Northern Spotted Owl and Old Growth Forests

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During the 1980s and 90s, the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) was perhaps the most controversial animal in the Pacific Northwest. The recommendation that the bird be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) pitted the lumber industry against environmentalists in an angry, ugly confrontation which persists to this day. So how can a bird where adult males measure only 19 inches (48 cm) in length and weigh a mere 1.4 lbs. (621 g) cause so much animosity?

The larger issue was what listing the owl under the ESA would mean. When a species is added to the list, its vital habitat also becomes protected – and in the owl’s case this meant thousands of acres of old growth forest important to the lumber industry. In short, protecting the owl would mean an end to harvesting trees in some of the most economically valuable wilderness areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Families which depended on lumber mills for their livelihood, particularly in rural areas, saw the owl as diverting attention away from a much larger issue. Lumber was a vital component of the local economy and initiating protections for a single animal meant thousands of people could suffer hardships. For lumber families, it was a very personal issue.

Environmentalists argued that the logging industry had been in decline long before the status of the owl was even known and it was unfair to blame this on the bird. They pointed out that jobs in the field had decreased by 90% since the end of World War II, mostly due to over-harvesting and the automation of tasks once performed by people. Without better forest management, they said, the lumber industry was doomed anyway because it was cutting down forests faster than new ones could grow.

The owl was officially listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. This solidified protections for the bird but did little to quell the controversy.

The Struggle Continues

Hoping to find a compromise for the situation, the federal government introduced the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. The plan was designed to protect old growth forest while allowing new growth to flourish and to ensure the lumber industry could harvest a certain amount of timber each year. But the plan remains controversial and lumber industry jobs were lost after its implementation because of the heightened restrictions on harvesting.

Many still blame the owl for this, but Louise Shimmel, the founder and director of the Cascades Raptor Center (CRC), says the real issue is not the bird.

“This isn’t really about just about one species,” she told the Oceanscape Network. “The owl’s just an icon for the larger problem, which is the destruction of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest… An entire ecosystem is threatened.”

To help explain the issue, Louise took Oceanscape Network youth volunteer Jake K. on a tour of the CRC, which is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of birds of prey like the Northern Spotted Owl. Jake even had the opportunity to photograph two owls currently being cared for by the CRC staff (see photo below).

Louise told Jake that the Northern Spotted Owl is a specialist species, meaning it requires a specific habitat and food sources and cannot adapt to others. Even the trees where it nests and raises its young have to be of a certain type. As the old growth forests in Oregon dwindled in size, the owl population crashed with them. But there are other factors negatively effecting the owl’s future, including a low reproduction rate and competition from interloping species such as the Barred Owl. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began killing the non-native Barred Owl, hoping this would decrease competition for the vital habitat needed by the Northern Spotted Owl. It’s unclear if this effort has been successful and Louise notes that it’s an imperfect solution at best.

“The problem there is you’re killing one species in the hopes of saving another,” she said. Indeed, the future of the species looks grim. “Many biologists that you will talk to say they expect it to go extinct in our lifetime, which is incredibly sad.”

How You Can Help

Conservation organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Wildlife Federation work with the Northern Spotted Owl and encourage stewardship through the protection of old growth forest and other vital habitats. You can advocate for the protection of these areas by contacting your elected officials and agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and expressing your opinion. Some organizations also allow the symbolic adoption of a threatened animal as a way of raising money to continue education and conservation efforts.

For additional information on the Northern Spotted Owl and general information on how you can assist injured or distressed birds of prey, including those hit by cars, visit the Cascades Raptor Center’s website.

Related Features: Youth Activities: Conservation Projects | Endangered Oregon: Return of the Gray Wolf | Endangered Oregon: The Vanishing Honey Bee | Endangered Oregon: Diver and Survivor

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