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Opinion: Saving an Owl from Politics

The imperiled northern spotted owl faces extinction if efforts enacted to save it continue to put politics ahead of science.

By | March 26, 2012

Adult Spotted OwlFLICKR, USFWS PACIFIC

No other species symbolizes the “war-in-the woods” over logging vs. forest protections better than the northern spotted owl. The owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1990 due to destruction of its forest habitat by logging. Unchecked logging at the time, as well as ongoing mechanization of mills that accelerated the speed at which trees could be processed by fewer workers, would have soon eliminated nearly all older forests along with forestry jobs. Historic logging levels also would have severely impacted the owl population, possibly eliminating it altogether, throughout most of its range.

Luckily, restrictions on timber harvest were put in place via the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which emphasized conservation and reduced timber harvests on more than 10 million hectares of federal lands. I and other scientists have hailed the forest plan as a global conservation model that protects terrestrial and aquatic species, and while the owl populations continue to decline today, the declines are steeper on nonfederal lands not receiving such protections.

But it is not time to relax. The owl’s legacy is fraught with efforts to overturn habitat protections at the highest levels of government. In 2006, I experienced this first hand while serving on the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s (Service) second owl recovery team where we were instructed by high-ranking officials of the George W. Bush administration to de-emphasize habitat protections. In 2007, I and other scientists testified in Congress on widespread-political interference in the ESA, which led to an investigation by the Inspector General into allegations that were corroborated in 2008. When President Barack Obama took office, one of his first natural resource decisions was to remand the owl recovery plan and related critical habitat determination requiring that revised plans be based on best-available science and instantly restoring credibility to the Service.

Despite several informed studies, however, the Service’s revised owl habitat plans have gone against scientific recommendations. Recently, for example, the agency proposed controversial active forest management (chainsaws) to be used in dry forests under the pretense that fires are getting worse and the benefits of thinning forest vegetation to reduce fire risks outweigh impacts to the owl. This recommendation was partly due to pressure from the timber industry and congressional allies, which continue to deny the importance of protecting habitat for spotted owls. But contrary to the assumptions of this plan, forest fires are not an increasing threat to spotted owls. In fact, spotted owls persist in fire-adapted forests and show resilience when forests burn. In the southern part of the owls’ range, fires have historically shaped owl habitat and behavior. Studies document owls nesting in burnt old forests and foraging in burnt shrubby areas. Nesting territories, however, are abandoned immediately if post-fire logging occurs, and thus protecting burned and nearby unburned habitat is critical to post-fire recovery.

The assumption that forest fires are getting worse in the dry provinces in the owls’ range has also been rejected by scientific analysis. Using data on severe forest fires over a 4-decade period (1980s-current), ecologists (including me) mapped wildfires to determine whether they were indeed increasing over time. In a paper published in Conservation Biology in 2009, we rejected the hypothesis of increasing fire severity and showed that the rate of natural regrowth of old forests was outpacing fire-related habitat changes by a wide margin. Simply put, the spotted owl has evolved and thrived with fire in the landscape, and fires are not getting worse in this region. So reducing the threat of forest fires by wide-spread thinning of owl habitat should not be the focus of conservation efforts.

The Service also proposed experimental and limited removal (shotguns) of barred owls, a competing invasive species, along with an accompanying Environmental Impact Statement that examines a range of alternatives before potentially scaling up the program. In this case, the Service responsibly chose to put sound science in the driver seat by experimenting with the efficacy of small-scale removals before implementing this untested program over a larger region. But we must be careful not to put too much of the blame on barred owls. A recent study documented that spotted owl extinctions from barred owl invasion were greatest in spotted owl territories with lower amounts of old growth at the nest site, suggesting that protecting habitat is essential for reducing competition between owl species. This finding again refutes timber industry assertions that habitat is not a limiting factor, instead supporting recommendations made by The Wildlife Society, Society of Conservation Biology, and American Ornithologists’ Union to protect more old forest habitat to reduce competition among owl species.

The ongoing battle between scientific integrity and political expediency continues. It appears decisions on spotted owls will be dominated by political maneuverings and election-year politics cloaked as “new recovery” and “ecoforestry.” There remain legitimate disagreements in scientific circles on owl management, but the spotted owl was initially listed because of rampant logging of old forests; thus the precautionary principle should apply:  look before you log.   And while there have been improvements in the use of science in ESA decisions since Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a 2009 scientific integrity order establishing a policy to ensure the integrity of science in the government’s decision-making, the Administration has yet to reach the best available science standard with respect to the owl.

Dominick A. DellaSala is the president and chief scientist of Geos Institute and president of the Society for Conservation Biology North America Section. He received conservation leadership awards from the World Wildlife Fund and Wilbuforce Foundation for his work on roadless areas and national monuments and “outstanding academic excellence” recognition from Choice Magazine for his book on temperate and boreal rainforests of the world.

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Comments

Avatar of: wing_ding

wing_ding

Posts: 4

March 26, 2012

Sorry to take a "radical" view but this is Darwin at his best. Humans are part of the environment and if they cause the extinction of another species due to their competitive advantage, then so be it. I've seen vast tracks of trees decimated by disease in Alaska - that has the same affect does it not?

Avatar of: Mike Noren

Mike Noren

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

 That doesn't even make sense. The spotted owl isn't just dying, it's being killed. We can easily stop it from going extinct by simply not destroying its habitat - and thereby we'd conserve a qualitative asset (species) at a very minor cost to a quantitative asset (lumber).

Avatar of: Dominick DellaSala

Dominick DellaSala

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

Darwin has very little to do with this extinction event underway - we have destroyed nearly all the spotted owls' old growth forest and even facilitated the spread of barred owls from the eastern US into the Pacific Northwest. I believe we have a moral imperative to prevent extinction events we are triggering. Darwin would roll over in his grave if we sat by and did nothing to intervene!

Avatar of: Barb/CO

Barb/CO

Posts: 9

March 26, 2012

The Spotted Owl should not be blamed for foreclosures, poverty, and the high unemployment rate in this country. Humans are in a position to stop the extinction events as Dominick calls them that we create. There are some things in nature we cannot control, but when we can, we should. Unfortunately, the timber industry has a lot of money to lobby with and will continue to do this no matter who is in office. Once their habitat is destroyed and the owls become extinct, there is no turning back. The housing industry, unemployment rate, poverty will not be affected by this. The rampant logging will just continue elsewhere. Is that a legacy we want to leave?
My views do not mean I am anti-logging industry, but when scientific recommendations are asked for and then ignored, I don't think that the fight to save the spotted owl should be abandoned. 

Avatar of: Mike Noren

Mike Noren

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

The GOP has been running a very successful and heavily funded campaign against the EPA in general and the Endangered Species Act in particular for well over a year.

The question effectively is WHEN the endangered species act will be destroyed, not IF; it's doomed because the GOP is hell-bent on destroying it and the democrats afraid to support it.

Avatar of: Dominick DellaSala

Dominick DellaSala

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

Automation and export of raw logs has contributed to job outsourcing and job losses - this is an area where industry has created boom and bust cycles, the latest being raw logs exported to China instead of processed locally. Plus if we kept cutting at the rate we were at in the peak of the 1980s logging boom, all old forests outside protected areas would be gone today, along with the jobs - this is the message the owl is providing to us. When will we start seeing our forests for the full array of life giving ecosystem services they provide? Irreplaceable clean water, clean air, healthy fish and wildlife populations, and increasingly important, long-term carbon storage. Our forests are worth far more standing than horizontal. We need to look at these issues from the standpoint of a big picture approach to nature - all ecosystems have their limits. Restoration, rather than deforestation, is a path forward to an enlightened connection between people, wildlife, and forests.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

Sorry to take a "radical" view but this is Darwin at his best. Humans are part of the environment and if they cause the extinction of another species due to their competitive advantage, then so be it. I've seen vast tracks of trees decimated by disease in Alaska - that has the same affect does it not?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

 That doesn't even make sense. The spotted owl isn't just dying, it's being killed. We can easily stop it from going extinct by simply not destroying its habitat - and thereby we'd conserve a qualitative asset (species) at a very minor cost to a quantitative asset (lumber).

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

Darwin has very little to do with this extinction event underway - we have destroyed nearly all the spotted owls' old growth forest and even facilitated the spread of barred owls from the eastern US into the Pacific Northwest. I believe we have a moral imperative to prevent extinction events we are triggering. Darwin would roll over in his grave if we sat by and did nothing to intervene!

Avatar of: Tom Oravec

Tom Oravec

Posts: 1457

March 26, 2012

So how many more jobs are going to be lost, how many more homes foreclosed, how many more into poverty because of one bird that doesn't understand survival?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

So how many more jobs are going to be lost, how many more homes foreclosed, how many more into poverty because of one bird that doesn't understand survival?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

The Spotted Owl should not be blamed for foreclosures, poverty, and the high unemployment rate in this country. Humans are in a position to stop the extinction events as Dominick calls them that we create. There are some things in nature we cannot control, but when we can, we should. Unfortunately, the timber industry has a lot of money to lobby with and will continue to do this no matter who is in office. Once their habitat is destroyed and the owls become extinct, there is no turning back. The housing industry, unemployment rate, poverty will not be affected by this. The rampant logging will just continue elsewhere. Is that a legacy we want to leave?
My views do not mean I am anti-logging industry, but when scientific recommendations are asked for and then ignored, I don't think that the fight to save the spotted owl should be abandoned. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

The GOP has been running a very successful and heavily funded campaign against the EPA in general and the Endangered Species Act in particular for well over a year.

The question effectively is WHEN the endangered species act will be destroyed, not IF; it's doomed because the GOP is hell-bent on destroying it and the democrats afraid to support it.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 26, 2012

Automation and export of raw logs has contributed to job outsourcing and job losses - this is an area where industry has created boom and bust cycles, the latest being raw logs exported to China instead of processed locally. Plus if we kept cutting at the rate we were at in the peak of the 1980s logging boom, all old forests outside protected areas would be gone today, along with the jobs - this is the message the owl is providing to us. When will we start seeing our forests for the full array of life giving ecosystem services they provide? Irreplaceable clean water, clean air, healthy fish and wildlife populations, and increasingly important, long-term carbon storage. Our forests are worth far more standing than horizontal. We need to look at these issues from the standpoint of a big picture approach to nature - all ecosystems have their limits. Restoration, rather than deforestation, is a path forward to an enlightened connection between people, wildlife, and forests.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 27, 2012

The bird understands survival just fine and did so very effectively for much longer than those who are logging the area have been there.  So perhaps the variable that changed was not the bird, but the habitat, which is easily and accurately documented in literature as a result of human activity, e.g., logging, pollution, etc.  Science suggests the lack of understanding is on your part, then.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 27, 2012

Wow -- I didn't realize that The Scientist attracted so many wing nuts. 

Where to begin with these sad comments? There really is no response, since far-Right anti-environmentalists like "wing_ding" and Tom Oravec are too far gone in their rat hole of ignorance and arrogance to recognize a reasoned argument. 

What's next: grinding up puppies for their nutritive value? It's natural for us to eat, after all. Jeez... 

It's called "compassion," people -- look it up.

Avatar of: oussu

oussu

Posts: 7

March 27, 2012

The bird understands survival just fine and did so very effectively for much longer than those who are logging the area have been there.  So perhaps the variable that changed was not the bird, but the habitat, which is easily and accurately documented in literature as a result of human activity, e.g., logging, pollution, etc.  Science suggests the lack of understanding is on your part, then.

Avatar of: J J

J J

Posts: 3

March 27, 2012

Wow -- I didn't realize that The Scientist attracted so many wing nuts. 

Where to begin with these sad comments? There really is no response, since far-Right anti-environmentalists like "wing_ding" and Tom Oravec are too far gone in their rat hole of ignorance and arrogance to recognize a reasoned argument. 

What's next: grinding up puppies for their nutritive value? It's natural for us to eat, after all. Jeez... 

It's called "compassion," people -- look it up.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 28, 2012

 Soooo...the spotted owl has a right to survive, but humans don't, is that it? On the contrary, I think Darwin would be appalled that we were not letting nature take its course - that is, after all, survival of the fittest.

Avatar of: A M

A M

Posts: 1457

March 28, 2012

 Oh yes, how "wise" they were in the management of Yellowstone - and they sure made a mess of that, didn't they? (see Michael Crichton's videos for a thorough expose of that foolishness. No, we do not need to sacrifice one species for another - next will be the golden winged vs. blue winged warblers. The environmentalists need to knock it off - it's time they realized we are not God, and despite all efforts, they cannot save birds from one another without royally screwing up the rest of the ecological balance.

Avatar of: A M

A M

Posts: 1457

March 28, 2012

 Soooo...the spotted owl has a right to survive, but humans don't, is that it? On the contrary, I think Darwin would be appalled that we were not letting nature take its course - that is, after all, survival of the fittest.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 28, 2012

 Oh yes, how "wise" they were in the management of Yellowstone - and they sure made a mess of that, didn't they? (see Michael Crichton's videos for a thorough expose of that foolishness. No, we do not need to sacrifice one species for another - next will be the golden winged vs. blue winged warblers. The environmentalists need to knock it off - it's time they realized we are not God, and despite all efforts, they cannot save birds from one another without royally screwing up the rest of the ecological balance.

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