Some of you may be old enough to remember the widely reported stories published in the late 1980s and early 1990s about the conflicts between the logging industry and those advocating for the Northern Spotted Owls (Strix occidentalis caurina).  

Northern Spotted Owl
Northern Spotted Owl © Mark Sheehan | Dreamstime.com

Conservationists stated that logging destroyed critical habitats, endangering the owls.  The owls under threat were also recognized as an indicator species for many others in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Loggers believed that the research regarding the needs of these owls was flawed. They further stated that the conservationists’ arguments needlessly threatened thousands of jobs. The battle continued for years and in many venues.  Ultimately, a judge ordered the Forest Service to revise its operations “to ensure the northern spotted owl’s viability.”  That occurred in 1992.

During the almost 30 years since the ruling and despite changes to logging practices, the number of Northern Spotted Owls continued to decline, especially during the most recent 10 years.  However, there is sort of good news.

A study published earlier this summer by multiple government agencies along with university research teams offered another aspect to the saga of the struggling owl species.   The report discussed the impact of a Barred Owl (Strix varia) population swell within the habitat during a 17-year study.  Barred Owls are considered invasive in this area and are fierce competitors for food and space use.  

To test a hypothesis, the research team enacted a pilot program to remove the invasive barred owls within two locations that were also under the forest conservation effort.  The program was conducted between 2009 and 2013.  Within these areas, the spotted owl population decline was only 0.2% per year as compared to a loss of 12.1% per year in areas without intervention.   

The influence of the barred owls on the habitat was not limited to the spotted owls.   As an overabundant species, it may also have negatively impacted other forest species. Consequently, they may have rebounded although they were not monitored.

The removal of the barred owls sparked its own controversy.   Not only is the suppression program costly and difficult to implement but the owls were euthanized.  This is a sad solution.

The argument then circles back to the need to protect and preserve more old-growth forests so that the species can reclaim a balance, hopefully without a plan that involves more killing.

Sources:

Excellent history and timeline of the Northern Spotted Owl controversy – https://foresthistory.org/research-explore/us-forest-service-history/policy-and-law/wildlife-management/the-northern-spotted-owl/

PNAS paper with the details – https://www.pnas.org/content/118/31/e2102859118

Oregon State University press release – https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/removal-barred-owls-slows-decline-iconic-spotted-owls-pacific-northwest-study-finds

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