Skip to comments.So Much For Saving The Spotted Owl
Posted on 08/03/2007 8:45:58 AM PDT by Incorrigible
A spotted owl on National Forest land west of Veneta, Ore. (Photo by Torsten Kjellstrand)
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. Two decades after the wrenching drive to save an obscure bird divided Americans and reshaped the economy of the Pacific Northwest, the northern spotted owl is disappearing anyway.
Even the most optimistic biologists now admit that the docile owl revered and reviled as one of the more contentious symbols the nation has known will probably never fully recover.
Intensive logging of the spotted owl's old-growth forest home threw the first punch that sent the species reeling. But the knockout blow is coming from a direction that scientists who drew up plans to save the owl didn't count on: nature itself.
The versatile and voracious barred owl is proving far more adept at getting rid of the smaller owl than the Endangered Species Act was at saving it:
Fewer than 25 spotted owls remain in British Columbia, the northern fringe of its range and where barred owls first moved into the West. Biologists say the best hope for Canada's spotted owls would be for zoos to capture and breed them, and perhaps someday return them to the wild.
Spotted owls are vanishing inside Olympic National Park, where logging never disturbed them. A biologist looking for them says it sometimes seems like searching for the long-lost ivory-billed woodpecker. Barred owl numbers, though, are "through the roof.''
Researchers fitting owls with radio transmitters and tracking them in Oregon's woods are finding more barred owls than anyone realized. A few decades ago, no barred owls existed there; now they outnumber spotted owls more than 2-to-1.
"It looks like we may have really underestimated the number of barred owls,'' says David Wiens, a leader of the study based at Oregon State University.
Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service biologist whose pioneering research put the spotted owl on the map, is helping oversee the study with Wiens. "I think we're going to be depressed when it's all over,'' Forsman says.
The spotted owl was not the only reason for protecting Northwest forests, but it was the trigger. With its dependence on towering old trees, the owl brought the Endangered Species Act into play during the logging boom of the 1980s. Judges finally put a stop to the cutting that threatened it.
Sawmills were shut; thousands of loggers lost jobs. Technology and global trade were altering the timber industry at the same time, eliminating jobs, too, but the spotted owl came to embody a sharp and, for many, painful break from the region's proud logging history.
Rural restaurants put spotted owls on their menus, and parade marchers burned the reclusive bird in effigy. T-shirts and bumper stickers urged: "Save a logger, eat an owl.''
"The spotted owl was really just a symbol for a much broader ecological and political debate,'' Forsman says. "Regardless of what happens to the spotted owl, I don't think that debate will change.''
Given enough protected forests, biologists thought, the spotted owl would rebound. They did not foresee competition moving in so fast.
Many researchers and activists say the threat of barred owls makes protection of the spotted owl's forest home even more critical today. But timber industry leaders who have the Bush administration's ear see little reason they should not now cut the trees where spotted owls used to perch.
The Endangered Species Act does not allow giving up on spotted owls. So federal biologists, under a new owl recovery plan, want to launch an assault on barred owls shooting them out of some patches of forest to see whether it helps spotted owls.
But will that work any better?
"Unless you are prepared to remove barred owls forever, I don't think it's realistic,'' Forsman says. "At best, we're going to end up with some considerably reduced population. At worst, who knows? All species eventually go extinct. ... That certainly could be the worst-case scenario, yes.''
A HOOT, BUT NO REPLY
Scott Gremel looks up at the treetops in Olympic National Park and hoots. It's the best way to find spotted owls. They're curious and swoop in quickly when they hear another owl call.
He's in a mossy draw of towering trees, calling for one of the few remaining pairs of spotted owls in the 922,651-acre park. Barred owls, first confirmed in Olympic in 1985, moved into the draw this year.
"In all honesty, I don't expect to find spotteds here again,'' Gremel says.
He began surveying owls in Olympic National Park in 1994, when spotted owls still inhabited most of their known nesting sites. Owls should be doing well in the park a protected refuge where logging never posed a threat. But there are few places where they're doing much worse.
This is easily the worst year yet: Gremel has never found fewer spotted owls or more barred owls. Barred owls have taken over nearly two-thirds of the spotted owl sites. It's not clear what's happening to the spotted owls. Some retreat to higher elevations until barred owls arrive, then they also wink out.
No one is sure what brought barred owls west from their original range along the East Coast. Some say it's a natural expansion; others say they followed settlers west, hopscotching across forests that grew up once people started extinguishing natural wildfires. Now they're moving south along the West Coast.
"I think places farther south of here are just behind us in terms of filling up with barred owls,'' Gremel says.
He pads across the spongy ground.
'I'm not sure people realize how much change there really has been,'' he says. 'Everybody did the right thing and tried to get ahead of the curve. We saved so much habitat. Then this pretty unforeseeable thing just mucked everything up.''
NOT PART OF THE PLAN
Barred owls were already arriving when forest and wildlife scientists, including Forsman, drew up the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, setting forests on a new course.
"We didn't factor them into the plans because we didn't know what was going to happen,'' Forsman says. 'We just proceeded on the assumption that if we took care of habitat, everything else would take care of itself.''
The Northwest Forest Plan, brokered by the Clinton administration, put millions of acres into older forest reserves for spotted owls, marbled murrelets and salmon. Other forests were supposed to supply a reduced but steady stream of logs for sawmills, though they never really did.
Biologists predicted that spotted owls in parts of the Northwest might decline slowly until logged forests recovered, then would rebuild. In reality, the decline has proved steeper than expected. In many areas, it's accelerating.
Spotted owl numbers dropped close to 3 percent a year in the 13 years since the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted a total of 50 percent or more in parts of Washington, where barred owls are most numerous and have been around the longest.
'The sites with the longest history of barred owls are the sites facing the largest population declines,'' says Martin Raphael, a research wildlife biologist with the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station.
Raphael's studies, including owl population models that project trends, show that spotted owl numbers still depend on how much habitat remains. But barred owls are now the controlling factor in whether those numbers rise or fall.
If the numbers are falling, more habitat "buys you more years.'' What it doesn't necessarily do is reverse the trend.
"If (a spotted owl population) is very small and declining, it's going to pass over a threshold from which it can't recover,'' Raphael says. "Nobody has been able to predict what that point is. When you have a downward trend, you're going to reach that point.''
PELLETS TELL STORY
Plastic bags hanging along the wall inside a garage west of Eugene, Ore., may explain why barred owls are taking over Northwest forests. Each bag holds an owl pellet a lump of indigestible remains, such as bones and fur, that owls regurgitate after each meal.
Scott Graham, a biologist working with David Wiens to track owls in Oregon's Coast Range, collects the pellets and picks them apart to see what the owls are eating.
"We'll climb trees in the next few weeks to collect pellets,'' he says. "You climb up there, and it's like a pellet gold mine. Lots of data up there.''
It's clear from the pellets that spotted owls are finicky eaters: Most bones they spit up come from flying squirrels. But barred owls are eating all kinds of things: crayfish, skunks, shrews, weasels.
Because barred owls eat a wider variety of prey, they need not scour as much forest for food. They pack closer together as many as four pairs of barred owls in the territory each spotted owl needs. They reproduce faster. Spotted owls feed at night; barred owls hunt around the clock.
'It's like they don't sleep,'' Graham says.
"They're kind of superbirds,'' Wiens adds.
They know this because they've fitted more than 20 of each owl species with radio transmitters and track the birds 24/7. It's the first study examining how the two species interact.
Biologists still don't know whether barred owls kill spotted owls, force them away from nests or stress them so they don't reproduce. Barred owls are much more skittish and difficult to catch. Biologists usually find the more territorial barred owls while calling for spotted owls.
But Wiens and his team looked specifically for barred owls, using recorded barred owl calls. They found far more barred owls that way, suggesting that earlier studies had missed many.
The wide appetite of the barred owls also makes biologists think they may be causing trouble for species beyond the spotted owl frogs, for example, or other owls.
"I think they're really having much more of an impact than we realize,'' says Rocky Gutierrez, a professor of forest wildlife at the University of Minnesota.
Biologists need to know much more about barred owls, he says, perhaps identifying places where spotted owls might have some competitive advantage. If it comes time to shoot barred owls, marksmen could go where it will make the most difference.
If there's hope for the spotted owl, biologists suggest, it may be in some such barred owl-free zones.
Biologists say barred owls must, at some point, fill up the available landscape. And then what will be left for spotted owls?
(Michael Milstein is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at michaelmilstein(at)news.oregonian.com.)
Not for commercial use. For educational and discussion purposes only.
Previous thread from the same reporter in May 2004:
I think you should see this;)
Why not a bounty on Barred Owls?
So, in order to save the spotted owl, we now get to ace the barred owl?
Ahem. This doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Say, how about if we arm the spotted owl and let it fend for itself?
How am I going to get my Spotted Owl Soup now?
We have to destroy the owls in order to save the owls.
When are we going to get out of this quagmire of an owl civil war?
I think we need to take immediate action and indict the barred owl for violating the Endangered Species Act. ;)
Barred Owls are lifetime members of the NRA and have class three federal gun licenses. They'll just gun down the spotted owls with full automatic fire if the shooting starts.
I spotted an owl, which started the whole world sighing,
But I didnt see that the owl was on me, oh no.
It started to fry, which started the whole world cringing,
Oh, if they’d only seen that the owl was in me.
I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes,
And I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that they’d said.
‘Til it finally died, which started the whole world crying,
Oh, if Id only seen that the joke was on me.
I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes,
And I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that they’d said.
‘til it finally died, which started the whole world crying,
Oh, if they’d only seen that the owl was in me.
I thought these environmentalists believed in Darwin. ;-)
which one tastes better I wonder.
Fight the barred owl for it.
My sister works on the “save the spotted owl” state committee in Oregon. She told me once, Mother Nature sometimes just says no. It’s called evolution.
Why haven't they put of the signs yet?
Just like those who were supposedly working to save Sacco and Vanzetti revealed to Katherine Ann Porter that they didn’t want to save S&V, that they had to die for the cause.
Libs are demented.
In the end they will discover that clear cutting is the only thing that will drive off the barred owls, and that the spotted owls love worms.
Clear cutting will be paid for by the government, but environmentalists will ensure that none of the lumber is sold.
yeah what is with evolutionists who believe in saving owls and encouraging negative replacement birth rates for humans?
Sounds like Barred Owls are superior to the Spotted Owl. Natural selection at work.
Nice idea, but it won't work. The spotted owls are not good shots. The best they can hope to do is to wing the bad owls.
I think this is the answer to your question: They HATE people, but all animals are virtuous because they have no free will(or something like that).
I know, it doesn’t make any sense. But then, neither does the Endangered Species Act.
Man attempting to play God never works. We’re not perfect, but God is.
I didn’t read every single word, but I read the start and did a good scan.
I’m a bit confused.
Where did the Barred Owl come from? They imply it shouldn’t be here, but never actually say that?
So was it human intervention (somebody released a bunch there) or just the Barred expanding? Or did Barreds move from 1 territory to another because of human development?
We only like Survival of the Fittest when it was way in the past.
We think everything should be exactly as it is now.
That's one theory that is suggested in the article. Barred owls from from the east.
Another species doomed to extinction before we showed up and the left used it to destroy people's livelyhoods.
According to my “Birds of North America” book, the spotted owl is supposed to occupy a limited range in the California Sierras, also a fairly large area in the Colorado and New Mexico Rockies as well as up in Washington. The barred owl is supposed to be completely absent from those areas according to the book. So it would seem to me that the spotted owl, as a species, may not be in danger of complete extinction. Maybe more study should be put into those areas to help it survive, even if Washington loses out due to Nature taking its course.
But what is “the east”? The land bordering it to the east? Or the East Coast?
Noone ever talks about Spotted Owl outside the logging areas of the NW!
So we need to know if SO are CURRENTLY still in CO/NM area or if that’s just previous history.
BTW, more same-o, same-o is going on here. Goobermint "scientists" claim there is an endangered species at risk along the Front Range and therefore all growth must be stopped to "save" it. What is it? "Prebble's Mouse." What is it really? Common field mouse. Is it endangered? Not in the least.
So, predictably, the Goobermint is conducting an Inquisition "investigating" all who questioned it's junk science.
In the case of Olympic National Park, one could make a case for the spotted owl decline being the fault of the US Forest Service: they’re the geniuses who imported goats into the park, which have since overrun the northeast portion of the place, killing off native ground cover.
Species go extinct. It happens.
There is so much truth in this article concerning how liberals actually think. Scary that it actually got through the editors. Of course they didn’t all the irony in it, it went right over them.
You forgot Katrina and the Minnesota bridge collapse.
LOL! Maybe I should change my screen name to TheBarredOwl?
Seriously, all the devastation to the logging industry, for what???? Once again, Mother Nature gives the humans the middle finger. Does this mean that they can revive logging now?
Occasionally we see Barn Owls. Those things are HUGE.
Just more proof of the lunacy of radical environmentalists. I can’t believe the article actually said that MAN’s WESTWARD EXPANSION CREATED the forests that allowed the barred owl to move West. I always thought they blamed Man for DESTROYING the forests. LOL
It never fails ! Liberals are always proven wrong with the passage of time. Always. Too bad everyone has such short memories.
“”Maybe I should change my screen name to TheBarredOwl?””
At first - I thought you should - but as it stands now - you are protected. Think about being mistaken for a barfly!!!! That’ll never do;)
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