Advertisement
The Scientist
The Scientist

Opinion: Politics Doesn’t Threaten Owl

A US Fish and Wildlife official responds to the assertion that the northern spotted owl is being mismanaged by government.

By | April 30, 2012

Northern Spotted OwlUS FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, HOLLINGSWORTH, JOHN AND KAREN

Management of the northern spotted owl is once again in the headlines.  The issue today is not whether to save the owl’s old-growth forests, but rather how to manage our forested landscapes in the face of scientific uncertainty concerning climate change, forest health, and wildfire.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) recently published the Proposed Revised Critical Habitat Rule for the northern spotted owl, for which we are currently seeking public comment and scientific peer review.  This proposed critical habitat is based on a three-part recovery strategy: (1) manage the competing invasive barred owl; (2) protect the remaining older forest habitat; and (3) maintain and restore healthy forest ecosystems.  This draft proposal, and the 2011 Revised Recovery Plan upon which it is based, represent a significant increase in protections for the spotted owl compared to previous critical habitat designations and plans, including the Northwest Forest Plan.

Dominick DellaSala disagrees, and in his recent opinion in The Scientist states his position on forest health and fire risk in the Pacific Northwest as scientific consensus.  Of particular concern is his assertion that the Service is disregarding this “consensus” for political reasons.

The issue of ecosystem health and fire risk (severity, frequency, and scale) in the Pacific Northwest is complex, and there is a wide variety of legitimate scientific viewpoints on forest management in the face of uncertainty.  This uncertainty is exacerbated by the consequences of a century of fire suppression and the emerging influence of climate change and its impact on patterns of precipitation, insect outbreaks, and forest disease.  DellaSala states in his opinion essay that “the assumption that forest fires are getting worse in the dry provinces in the owl’s range has been rejected by scientific analysis,” citing his paper published in Conservation Biology in 2009.  In fact, 13 distinguished scientists published a rebuttal of this 2009 paper in Conservation Biology the following year.  These and many scientists dispute DellaSalla’s position, and it is disconcerting that he fails to acknowledge those dissenting opinions while simultaneously calling for scientific integrity.  There are many recently published studies that reach different conclusions, and most suggest large changes in fire frequency, severity, and total burned area are indeed underway in the Pacific Northwest.

DellaSala also misrepresents the scientific basis for the Service’s consideration of “active forest management” to address these forest health concerns.  The scientific debate of when best to apply the precautionary principle in forest management—when to take action vs. when to not take action in the face of risk—has been ongoing for several decades.  Ten years ago, eminent fire ecologist James Agee described these two viewpoints in an essay published in Conservation Biology in Practice in 2002, “The Fallacy of Passive Management,” and made a cogent scientific argument for targeting fuels and vegetation treatments toward broader ecosystem conservation goals.  DellaSala can disagree with this perspective, but he cannot disregard the wide and growing body of scientific research that recommends active management to varying degrees, some specific to the conservation of spotted owls and other wildlife species.

Furthermore, the Service’s plans do not advocate widespread forest thinning as the sole focus of owl conservation efforts, as DellaSala implied.  We emphasize conservation of existing spotted owl nest sites and high quality owl habitat.  Thinning, prescribed fire, let-burn policies, and other tools are part of the overall active management portfolio for land managers to address forest health.  Given the uncertainty in climate and fire risk predictions, we explicitly recommend restoring more natural fire regimes and forest patterns to maintain ecosystems that are resilient to fire and other disturbances.

DellaSala cites these and other recommendations as “political maneuverings...cloaked as ‘ecoforestry,’” thereby dismissing the recommendations of the many distinguished scientists practicing in the field of ecological forestry and from whom many of our recommendations derive.  We have solicited scientific peer review of the draft proposed critical habitat from over 40 recognized scientific experts in the fields of wildlife biology, fire ecology, forest ecology, and habitat modeling, and we will use this review to improve the final critical habitat designation.

But while we respectfully disagree with DellaSala’s viewpoint, we believe it is an important part of the scientific process for conclusions and assumptions to be challenged.  He raises some reasonable concerns that we take into consideration when developing our conservation strategies, but his conclusions do not represent the scientific majority on this issue.   We encourage your readers to visit our website to review the comprehensive scientific documentation upon which the recovery plan and critical habitat proposal are based and arrive at their own conclusions regarding whether it is a balanced and rigorous scientific treatment of this issue.

Paul Henson is the state supervisor of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, which oversees spotted owl recovery for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Advertisement
The Scientist
The Scientist

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You

You

Processing...
Processing...

Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo

Comments

Avatar of: mememine

mememine

Posts: 7

April 30, 2012

We missed getting Bush for his false
war......................let's get the scientists that led us to another false war; Climate Blame.

 

U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

 

or

By Phone:

Department of Justice Main Switchboard -202-514-2000

 

 

Climate change has done to SCIENCE and journalism what
naughty priests and suicide bombers did for religion.

Avatar of: dellasala

dellasala

Posts: 2

April 30, 2012

What this article unfortunately fails to mention is a new study in northern California (Millar et al., 2012) that found no increase in fire severity that supports the findings of Hanson et al. 2009 referred to in my article (so it's not just my piece but others have found the same pattern - I sent this article to Paul Henson previously but he failed to cite it in his piece).  The assumptions of the plan remain fatally flawed - (1) there has been no stastistical increase in high severity fire but rather an increase in fire extent that might be good for owls in the southern range as the species requires a mosaic of habitats (if high severity fire is on the increase as he claims, then show us the data); (2) owl-fire studies have shown owls are quite resilient to fire but abandon nest sites when salvage logging occurs yet the plan is weak on salvage prohibitions (if this is about critical habitat then why not a prohibition on salvage logging in owl habitat - this has never happened, of course!); and (3) even with a radical increase in fire extent and severity due to climate change (and the precipitation models are uncertain in this region so its not clear if that will occur) younger forests succeeding to old growth will outpace that which is being replaced by fire (we mentioned this repeatedly to FWS and even sent them our data on this trend but they seem to be avoiding the role of forest succession). And finally, I don't understand why FWS is avoiding the recommendation that was made by The Wildlife Society, Society for Conservation Biology, and American Ornithologists' Union (hardly a minority of scientific opinions!) to experiment first using small scale thinning treatments to settle the issue before logging over a large part of the owls' range. The agency is doing experimental removal of barred owls following the advice of scientists but when it comes to logging the issue remains - log first, ask later!

Avatar of: dellasala

dellasala

Posts: 2

April 30, 2012

What this article unfortunately fails to mention is a new study in
northern California (Millar et al., 2012) that found no increase in fire
severity that supports the findings of Hanson et al. 2009 referred to
in my article (so it's not just my piece but others have found the same
pattern - I sent this article to Paul Henson previously but he failed to
cite it in his piece).  The assumptions of the plan remain fatally flawed - (1) there has been no stastistical
increase in high severity fire but rather an increase in fire extent
that might be good for owls in the southern range as the species
requires a mosaic of habitats (if high severity fire is on the increase
as he claims, then show us the data); (2) owl-fire studies have shown
owls are quite resilient to fire but abandon nest sites when salvage
logging occurs yet the plan is weak on salvage prohibitions (if this is
about critical habitat then why not a prohibition on salvage logging in owl habitat -
this has never happened, of course!); and (3) even with a radical
increase in fire extent and severity due to climate change (and the
precipitation models are uncertain in this region so its not clear if
that will occur) younger forests succeeding to old growth will outpace
that which is being replaced by fire (we mentioned this repeatedly to
FWS and even sent them our data on this trend but they seem to be
avoiding the role of forest succession). And finally, I don't understand
why FWS is avoiding the recommendation that was made by The Wildlife
Society, Society for Conservation Biology, and American Ornithologists'
Union (hardly a minority of scientific opinions!) to experiment first
using small scale thinning treatments to settle the issue before logging
over a large part of the owls' range. The agency is doing experimental
removal of barred owls following the advice of scientists but when it
comes to logging the issue remains - log first, ask later!

Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 1457

April 30, 2012

As the climate continues to change, species distributions will continue to change.  Just as Homo sapiens 'swallowed up' Homo neanderthalensis, speciation is not a one-way journey in its details.  Right now, it looks like the Spotted Owl will become part of the Barred Owl species complex, at best.  When these 'well-informed' agents remove Barred Owls (which are not 'artificially introduced'), they are interfering with a natural process of change.  These fixed-species ideas are for museum taxonomists who often act as if a species is frozen in time (I guess it's hard to learn the truth by examining our own species!), on the specimen shelf, or a public with limited education that follows their lead.  The reality is:  species complexes or populations with geographical races due to isolation combined with a lot of gene flow within a diverse population, and continuous change driven by climate and an evolutionary war of competing biological technology, transmitted from generation to generation by genes.  This is the reality that the type-species people often choose to avoid.  And wildlife managers?  They need a lesson in historic population ecology.  Like, what do they think has been happening since the end of the last glacial maximum, 15,000 years ago?  To protect the process, you protect habitat and corridors, but those same corridors will spell the end of less-successful or more specialized sibling species.  You can isolate a sub-population to protect its genes, maybe even have one fish 'species' per pond.  That's the 'reality' that a lot of people have been pushing.

Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 1457

April 30, 2012

One more thing about this article- it mentions 'scientific experts.'  Science does not allow argument by authority, and definitely not ethics by authority.  So these people may be 'experts' (perhaps at posing as 'scientific experts'), but there is no such thing as a 'scientific expert.'

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 30, 2012

We missed getting Bush for his false
war......................let's get the scientists that led us to another false war; Climate Blame.

 

U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

 

or

By Phone:

Department of Justice Main Switchboard -202-514-2000

 

 

Climate change has done to SCIENCE and journalism what
naughty priests and suicide bombers did for religion.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 30, 2012

What this article unfortunately fails to mention is a new study in northern California (Millar et al., 2012) that found no increase in fire severity that supports the findings of Hanson et al. 2009 referred to in my article (so it's not just my piece but others have found the same pattern - I sent this article to Paul Henson previously but he failed to cite it in his piece).  The assumptions of the plan remain fatally flawed - (1) there has been no stastistical increase in high severity fire but rather an increase in fire extent that might be good for owls in the southern range as the species requires a mosaic of habitats (if high severity fire is on the increase as he claims, then show us the data); (2) owl-fire studies have shown owls are quite resilient to fire but abandon nest sites when salvage logging occurs yet the plan is weak on salvage prohibitions (if this is about critical habitat then why not a prohibition on salvage logging in owl habitat - this has never happened, of course!); and (3) even with a radical increase in fire extent and severity due to climate change (and the precipitation models are uncertain in this region so its not clear if that will occur) younger forests succeeding to old growth will outpace that which is being replaced by fire (we mentioned this repeatedly to FWS and even sent them our data on this trend but they seem to be avoiding the role of forest succession). And finally, I don't understand why FWS is avoiding the recommendation that was made by The Wildlife Society, Society for Conservation Biology, and American Ornithologists' Union (hardly a minority of scientific opinions!) to experiment first using small scale thinning treatments to settle the issue before logging over a large part of the owls' range. The agency is doing experimental removal of barred owls following the advice of scientists but when it comes to logging the issue remains - log first, ask later!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 30, 2012

What this article unfortunately fails to mention is a new study in
northern California (Millar et al., 2012) that found no increase in fire
severity that supports the findings of Hanson et al. 2009 referred to
in my article (so it's not just my piece but others have found the same
pattern - I sent this article to Paul Henson previously but he failed to
cite it in his piece).  The assumptions of the plan remain fatally flawed - (1) there has been no stastistical
increase in high severity fire but rather an increase in fire extent
that might be good for owls in the southern range as the species
requires a mosaic of habitats (if high severity fire is on the increase
as he claims, then show us the data); (2) owl-fire studies have shown
owls are quite resilient to fire but abandon nest sites when salvage
logging occurs yet the plan is weak on salvage prohibitions (if this is
about critical habitat then why not a prohibition on salvage logging in owl habitat -
this has never happened, of course!); and (3) even with a radical
increase in fire extent and severity due to climate change (and the
precipitation models are uncertain in this region so its not clear if
that will occur) younger forests succeeding to old growth will outpace
that which is being replaced by fire (we mentioned this repeatedly to
FWS and even sent them our data on this trend but they seem to be
avoiding the role of forest succession). And finally, I don't understand
why FWS is avoiding the recommendation that was made by The Wildlife
Society, Society for Conservation Biology, and American Ornithologists'
Union (hardly a minority of scientific opinions!) to experiment first
using small scale thinning treatments to settle the issue before logging
over a large part of the owls' range. The agency is doing experimental
removal of barred owls following the advice of scientists but when it
comes to logging the issue remains - log first, ask later!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 30, 2012

As the climate continues to change, species distributions will continue to change.  Just as Homo sapiens 'swallowed up' Homo neanderthalensis, speciation is not a one-way journey in its details.  Right now, it looks like the Spotted Owl will become part of the Barred Owl species complex, at best.  When these 'well-informed' agents remove Barred Owls (which are not 'artificially introduced'), they are interfering with a natural process of change.  These fixed-species ideas are for museum taxonomists who often act as if a species is frozen in time (I guess it's hard to learn the truth by examining our own species!), on the specimen shelf, or a public with limited education that follows their lead.  The reality is:  species complexes or populations with geographical races due to isolation combined with a lot of gene flow within a diverse population, and continuous change driven by climate and an evolutionary war of competing biological technology, transmitted from generation to generation by genes.  This is the reality that the type-species people often choose to avoid.  And wildlife managers?  They need a lesson in historic population ecology.  Like, what do they think has been happening since the end of the last glacial maximum, 15,000 years ago?  To protect the process, you protect habitat and corridors, but those same corridors will spell the end of less-successful or more specialized sibling species.  You can isolate a sub-population to protect its genes, maybe even have one fish 'species' per pond.  That's the 'reality' that a lot of people have been pushing.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 30, 2012

One more thing about this article- it mentions 'scientific experts.'  Science does not allow argument by authority, and definitely not ethics by authority.  So these people may be 'experts' (perhaps at posing as 'scientific experts'), but there is no such thing as a 'scientific expert.'

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

May 3, 2012

Controlling Brown-headed Cowbirds in Michigan led to a significant increase in the very endangered Kirtland's Warbler population.  Cowbird control was necesseary because we had altered the landscape leading to a population explosion of cowbirds. Not exactly a 'natural' force.  How is Barred Owl control any different?  Or do you believe that our actions over the last 100 years that led to the increase in Barred Owls is just another 'natural' factor.  And if so...why isn't active management also just another 'natural' factor?

Avatar of: jimlevine

jimlevine

Posts: 1

May 3, 2012

Controlling Brown-headed Cowbirds in Michigan led to a significant increase in the very endangered Kirtland's Warbler population.  Cowbird control was necesseary because we had altered the landscape leading to a population explosion of cowbirds. Not exactly a 'natural' force.  How is Barred Owl control any different?  Or do you believe that our actions over the last 100 years that led to the increase in Barred Owls is just another 'natural' factor.  And if so...why isn't active management also just another 'natural' factor?

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Advertisement