Spotted Owl Population Declines Sharply

Q U I N E S   C R E E K, Ore., July 10, 2000 -- Endangered salmon may have pushed thespotted owl off the front page, but the birds are continuing todisappear from Northwest forests.

In five years, the owl population’s rate of decline has slowedfrom 4.5 percent a year to 3.9 percent a year. In some areas, suchas the forests near Glendale, the spotted owl population may bestable; in others, like Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, thepopulation is plummeting.

Still, the owl population is falling more quickly than the 1percent annual decline predicted in the Northwest Forest Plan, analarming development to forest activists.

The Quines Creek nest is in LSR 223, a 63,259-acre parcel offederal land set aside in 1994 to prevent extinction of the spottedowl, which most wildlife biologists agree needs old-growth foreststo thrive.

Long-Term Progress

In 7.4 million acres of federal land set aside in California,Oregon and Washington logging is prohibited in stands older than 80years and allowed in younger stands only if the post-logging forestwill be better habitat for the owl.

“We don’t expect to see the types of changes habitatwise withthis plan for 30, 50 and upwards of 80 years,” says Joe Lint, aBLM biologist based in Roseburg. “We’re hoping that in 80 years,100 years, 120 years, some of these stands are going to come onlineas habitat. As the habitat comes online, we’re confident the owlswill use it. In the meantime, we’re monitoring what’s happening.We’re looking for progress.”

Progress comes in tiny increments in a 100-year plan, but theslowing rate of decline gave federal biologists some good news toreport. And more important, female birds are surviving andreproducing at a stable rate across the region.

“It gives me hope that the plan is working and will work. Tome, that’s the biggest take-home from the data we’re collecting,”says Eric Forsman, a Corvallis-based U.S. Forest Service biologist.“But there is a chance that even though the rates are stable,they’re too low to maintain a viable population. To me, that’s thebiggest area of uncertainty.”

Rachel Fazio, an attorney with the Pasadena, Calif.-based JohnMuir Project, blames continued logging of owl habitat both insideand outside late successional reserves.

“They’re definitely taking out less board feet than theyestimated they would. However, they seem to be applying to harvestmaybe two to three times as much acreage,” she says. “And they’renot keeping track of how much habitat they’re logging.”

Lawsuit Pending

A federal judge in Seattle may rule by the end of the year onthe Muir project’s lawsuit, filed last summer, to suspend alllogging within the range of the northern spotted owl until forestmanagers figure out why owl populations are falling more rapidlythan expected and how much owl habitat actually remains in theNorthwest woods.

“It’s really hard to think they’re making really greatmanagement decisions for this species if they don’t know the fullstory,” Fazio says.

When the northern spotted owl made the endangered species listin 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that as manyas 8,000 spotted owls lived in the Northwest woods.

But with more than a billion board feet of trees falling infederal forests each year and environmental groups winning a seriesof court battles, Fish and Wildlife decided that without protectionnorthern spotted owls faced extinction.

The resulting Northwest Forest Plan, adopted in 1994, whichreduced timber harvest on federal lands by 80 percent, predictedowl populations would continue to fall for 40 years beforestabilizing.