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Northern spotted owl

Loss of old-growth forest habitat in the Northwest continues to threaten northern spotted owls with extinction.

An Icon of Old Growth

Northern spotted owl. Photo copyright Paul BannickPerhaps no other animal in the Northwest symbolizes both the plight and the fecundity of old-growth forests better than the northern spotted owl. Yet in Washington state, over 90% of old-growth forest has been lost to logging and other development operations. Not surprisingly, northern spotted owl populations have responded to habitat loss by declining steeply, 40 to 60 percent, in the last ten years.

Conservation Northwest has long supported and created initiatives to protect old-growth stands, which in turn safeguarded the continued existence of the northern spotted owl. Despite these efforts the northern spotted owl is still extremely vulnerable.

A Beauteous Bird

The northern spotted owl is a medium-sized nocturnal raptor that lives in mature and old-growth forests from northern California to southern British Columbia. Spotted owls hunt voles and flying squirrels in forests and nest high up in big, live trees, crossing open spaces only when necessary. These owls mate for life and generally have a life span of 10 to 15 years.

Protection Is Paramount

First protected in 1990, after nearly a century of logging in their habitat, the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The spotted owl is a "keystone" species, and an indicator of old growth for many other forest dependent species. In the 1990s much of the logging industry saw the owl as the enemy. When Federal Judge Dwyer forced the Forest Service to protect the owl and its habitat, a resulting chain of events led to the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan, governing management of spotted owl habitat from Washington to northern California in westside forests. Conservation Northwest was involved, as were many Northwest conservation groups, in development of that plan.

The owl was also recently subjected to a five-year scientific review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if listing was still necessary. In 2005 the results of that review maintained northern spotted owl’s status as threatened, yet their habitat is still vulnerable and population declines continue.

The barred owl, an East Coast native, has been linked to the continuing decline of the spotted owl. The barred owl is aggressively taking over spotted owl territory in protected old-growth forest, leaving less and less viable habitat for the endangered spotted owl.

We could lose spotted owls in this century unless something is done to strengthen owl protection.

A Future for Owls? 

Forest rules for state lands in Washington, despite “protected” status for the owl, allow cutting of up to 60% of the forest in areas designated as owl habitat. Further, state and federal policymakers have arbitrarily eliminated 15 Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas, explicitly ignoring wildlife biologist recommendations.

Protection of the northern spotted owl is even more problematic in British Columbia, where only a few mating pairs remain. Clearly, policymakers need to start getting serious about old-growth protection in order for a viable population of northern spotted owls to survive. "Is it too late for Canada's spotted owls?" writes David Suzuki. "It certainly is if politics, not science, guides their recovery."

Conservation Northwest will continue to work to protect northern spotted owl and the old growth they rely upon for existence.

Other talking points

  • Old-growth forests are not only home to spotted owls: They are sources of clean drinking water and salmon runs and provide a home for many rare animals and plants, some found nowhere else on Earth.
  • The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan and its network of fixed old-growth reserves (not the MOCA network, forwarded by the Bush administration!) remains the best and most scientifically credible framework for owl recovery.
  • The spotted owl is rapidly declining across Washington State, and therefore requires more protection of old-growth forests, not less.
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