Northern Spotted Owls Face Uncertain Future

Citing increasing threats, scientists call for owl habitat protection to thwart extinction


Susan Ash, Audubon Society of Portland (503) 504-7151


Dave Werntz, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance (360) 319-9949


Doug Heiken, ONRC (541) 344-0675


Noah Greenwald, CBD (503) 243-6643


Joseph Vaile, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (541) 488-5789

In a report delivered to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today, a scientific panel determined that the northern spotted owl is increasingly threatened with extinction. The panel advised that protection for all suitable owl habitat could be critical to owl survival and recovery. The scientific report marks a striking contrast with Bush administration policies, developed in partnership with the timber industry, which seek to increase old-growth logging across the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s a crisis situation for spotted owls,” said Susan Ash, Conservation Director for Audubon Society of Portland. “The scientific evidence points to an increasing need to protect the owl’s habitat, while the Bush administration moves in the opposite direction – working feverishly to drop and weaken rules that protect the owl’s old-growth habitat from logging.”

The report describes northern spotted owl populations in steep decline in Washington and British Columbia, while those in southwest Oregon and northwest California are declining much less rapidly. However, the panel also described threats to the owl that could be more severe in the southern part of the species’ range.

“Oregon and California, and particularly the Klamath-Siskiyou region, offer the best hope of a future for northern spotted owls,” said Scott Greacen of EPIC, “but these areas are precisely where the Bush administration is targetting old forests and roadless areas with the owl’s best habitat. This report is yet another very compelling message from our best scientists that underscores the need to protect the old-growth forest habitat we have left.”

The scientific panel examined northern spotted owl population trends and threats to owls from habitat loss, competition, disease, and other factors in order to determine if owls are still headed toward extinction. The scientists determined that owl populations are still declining and face an increasingly uncertain future. Habitat destruction from logging remains a major threat, especially salvage logging in federal owl reserves. As well, new and growing threats include competition with the increasingly prevalent barred owl; diseases, like West Nile Virus and Sudden Oak Death Syndrome; and uncharacteristic fires in southern and eastern portions of the owl’s range. All of these problems, not anticipated in the Northwest Forest Plan, may further imperil the owl.

“While their habitat was logged on private, state, and federal lands over the last decade, northern spotted owls have continued their trend toward extinction,” said Dave Werntz, Science Director with Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, “and now disease, fire, and barred owl competition threaten extinction for Washington’s spotted owls.”

According to the report, the Northwest Forest Plan reserves are integral to spotted owl survival and recovery. The Bush administration, however, plans to eliminate owl reserves on certain federal lands in Oregon as part of a legal settlement with the timber industry. Another legal agreement forged by the timber industry and Bush administration eliminated old-growth wildlife protections earlier this year. Last month, the administration took steps toward removing Endangered Species Act protections for the marbled murrlet, an old-growth dependent sea-bird, after a review triggered by a legal settlement between the industry and Bush administration.

The northern spotted owl is a medium-sized, dark brown, nocturnal raptor that inhabits mature and old-growth forests from northern California to southern British Columbia, Canada. First protected in 1990, after nearly a century of logging in their forest habitat, the northern spotted owl is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. A 2002 lawsuit filed by the timber industry challenged the spotted owl listing, as well as its habitat protections. The U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service will be reviewing the scientific panel’s report and are expected to make their determination in November on whether Endangered Species Act protections are still needed.


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