Protecting the Northern Spotted Owl

In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Northern spotted owl (NSO) as endangered under the Endangered Species Act ‑‑ citing loss of old growth habitat as the primary reason.  Federal listing prohibits harming, harassing or injuring the NSO or its critical habitat.  At that time they thought that only 90 pairs of owls existed in Northern California.

This listing drastically changed forestry operations and since that time, the industry has worked hard to strike a balance between protecting valuable wildlife species such as the owl, while conducting sustainable forestry operations.

And our efforts are proving to be effective.

We operate under a comprehensive, multi-agency regulatory process that protects and enhances the habitat of Northern spotted owls.

The NSO is further protected in California by landowner specific measures including the Spotted Owl Management Plan, The Spotted Owl Resource Plan and under federal Habitat Conservation Plans.

Private timberland owners are guided by the comprehensive California Forest Practice Rules, which were developed in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s guidance, review and technical assistance in regards to the NSO.

An enormous network of landowners, wildlife biologists, spotted owl experts, foresters and other resource professionals have gone above and beyond regulation to protect the Northern spotted owl.

In fact, local forest owners such as Green Diamond Resource Company and Humboldt Redwood Company have spent more than 25 years surveying, monitoring, tracking and banding the NSO to study its habitat; its food source; its reproduction; its population; and, its interaction on managed landscapes.

Their wildlife biologists have learned that in contrast to belief that they only live in old-growth forests, thriving populations have been found in second and third-growth forests that have characteristics of old-growth trees for nesting, as well as young growth for feeding opportunities.

As part of their operations, these companies and others now voluntarily retain certain trees that contain key features for the purpose of wildlife habitat.

Biologists have also found that the NSO are not as sensitive to noise and other disturbances as once thought.

Under these voluntary and regulatory efforts, there has never been an incident of unauthorized “take” of the Northern spotted owl, and any loss of habitat on private lands has been mitigated to insignificance since 1990.

In fact, since 1990, NSO in private timberlands have shown to be dynamic but stable or even expanding; now estimated to reach more than 2,000 on privately managed lands.

The data collected by wildlife biologists in California over the past 25 years is the largest data set of mark and recapture in all of Oregon, Washington and California.

So with all their efforts, why does California want to list it as endangered?

Despite our efforts to protect the NSO on privately managed timberlands, the owl still faces significant threats.  For instance, large, intense wildfires can wipe out entire territories of habitat for decades.  Owls are continually ingesting small rodents that are exposed to harmful rodenticides, usually from illegal marijuana grows.  And research has shown that the largest threat to the NSO is the expanding territory of its more aggressive cousin, the barred owl that outcompetes it for food and habitat.

Knowing the continued threats that the owl faces, forestland owners have worked collectively to reduce the threat of wildfire on their lands; and have even worked to control the barred owl occupation of NSO habitat.  These efforts have proven to be effective, and biologists have seen the NSO quickly return after barred owl control.

Landowners continue to look for ways to partner with private, nonprofit and regulatory agencies in their efforts to protect the owl, yet don’t see the need for more layers of regulatory authority.

The fear is that small landowners would not be able to afford an increase in regulatory authority and associated costs, and therefore would forego their voluntary efforts to protect the owl and its habitat.

Since current regulatory and voluntary efforts have been sufficient for 25 years, let’s work collectively to address the other primary threats and continue to allow sustainable forestry to help.