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 the spotted owl off the front page, but the birds are continuing to disappear from Northwest forests.

In five years, the owl population’s rate of decline has slowed from 4.5 percent a year to 3.9 percent a year. In some areas, such as the forests near Glendale, the spotted owl population may be stable; in others, like Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, the population is plummeting.

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

The Quines Creek nest is in LSR 223, a 63,259-acre parcel of federal land set aside in 1994 to prevent extinction of the spotted owl, which most wildlife biologists agree needs old-growth forests to 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 80 years and allowed in younger stands only if the post-logging forest will be better habitat for the owl.

“We don’t expect to see the types of changes habitatwise with this plan for 30, 50 and upwards of 80 years,” says Joe Lint, a BLM biologist based in Roseburg. “We’re hoping that in 80 years, 100 years, 120 years, some of these stands are going to come online as habitat. As the habitat comes online, we’re confident the owls will 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 the slowing rate of decline gave federal biologists some good news to report. And more important, female birds are surviving and reproducing at a stable rate across the region.

“It gives me hope that the plan is working and will work. To me, 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 the biggest area of uncertainty.”

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

“They’re definitely taking out less board feet than they estimated they would. However, they seem to be applying to harvest maybe two to three times as much acreage,” she says. “And they’re not keeping track of how much habitat they’re logging.”

Lawsuit Pending

A federal judge in Seattle may rule by the end of the year on the Muir project’s lawsuit, filed last summer, to suspend all logging within the range of the northern spotted owl until forest managers figure out why owl populations are falling more rapidly than expected and how much owl habitat actually remains in the Northwest woods.

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

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

But with more than a billion board feet of trees falling in federal forests each year and environmental groups winning a series of court battles, Fish and Wildlife decided that without protection northern spotted owls faced extinction.

The resulting Northwest Forest Plan, adopted in 1994, which reduced timber harvest on federal lands by 80 percent, predicted owl populations would continue to fall for 40 years before stabilizing.