SPOTTED OWLS


TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER - SAME CONTROVERSIES

The northern spotted owl creeps back into the news regularly here in the Pacific Northwest, usually with a new spin on an old and still unresolved management controversy. Lately, it has been about barred owls. Apparently someone in the timber industry has just discovered that one of the spotted owls' problems is invasion of their territory by barred owls. The industry answer: we don't need to save old growth forest; we just need to get rid of barred owls. Even if the answer was that simple, it ignores a basic fact that we have known for twenty-five years or more: that the reason barred owls have been able to invade spotted owl territory is because logging has opened up and fragmented the forest so that barred owls can invade.

Because the issue of spotted owl preservation has not been resolved - and in some ways is no closer to resolution that it was in the 1980s - a couple of old communications might be worth looking at, again. The first is a memo I wrote to the interagency Spotted Owl Subcommittee, of which I was a member, discussing our assignment from the Oregon-Washington Interagency Wildlife Committee to rewrite and improve the spotted owl management "guidelines." The other is an "open letter" I wrote a couple years later, presenting my view of what was wrong with the spotted owl program.

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To: Spotted Owl Subcommittee, 19 December 1986
From: Sandy Wilbur
Subject: OWIWC assignment - spotted owl "guidelines"

Since of 5 December meeting, I've been giving some additional thought to how we should approach our assignment. As I stated at the meeting (maybe too clearly!), I am not in favor of spending much time reworking and restating our previous comments for the benefit of the land management agencies if they have no intention of taking them seriously. On the other hand, I think it could be very important to have a formal paper covering the spotted owl "experts" views on what the owls really need. Most of the legitimate "experts" are affiliated with the subcommittee, so why shouldn't we take on the job?

There has been lots of talk about what we don't know about spotted owls. Nevertheless, and as several of you said very clearly at the last meeting, everyone who has the right (=background) to talk seriously about the species has come to the same conclusion - NORTHERN SPOTTED OWLS ARE IN TROUBLE, AND THEY ARE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE OF PAST AND CONTINUING LOSSES OF OLD-GROWTH FOREST. In such circumstances, the prudent manager does not say "we don't know how much trouble it is in, so let's keep doing what we have been doing until we find out.""Since we don't know how much trouble the owl is in, we had better preserve options until we find out." The prudent manager says, This is the basic premise of all vulnerable species management: greatest attention should be given to the most sensitive aspect of the total problem. We know oil in the ground is still oil; use can be deferred without losing it. Trees will eventually fall down if uncut, but the process is very slow and most will still be around in 10, 20, 50 or more years. On the other hand, owls and owl habitat lost now are GONE; we can't bring them back in 10 years if "additional research" shows we needed them.

I'm not telling you anything you don't know. Nevertheless, as a subcommittee I think we have been negligent in not accepting the situation as it really is. Consequently, our exhortations to our respective agencies have been pretty wishy-washy. The best example is in our continued endorsement of the SOMA/SOHA [spotted owl management areas/spotted owl habitat areas] concept. We feel (on incomplete but nevertheless very good information) that every identified and potential problem for spotted owls is directly or indirectly the result of old-growth forest fragmentation. Included are: reduction in genetic flow; spatial and logistical problems of birds meeting and mating, or of finding vacant habitat; reduced food supplies; barred owl competition; horned owl predation; and such "edge effects" as blowdowns which further reduce available habitat. The best evidence is that the effects of these various factors would not be much different whether the individual SOHAs are 1,000, 2,500, or 4,200 acres in size. Even if the land managing agencies took all our advice on how SOHAs should be established and administered, we will still eventually be looking at the ultimate in fragmented habitat. We will be depending on a breeding pair's ability to find all their needs within an individual SOHA. We will be depending on the ability of owls to disperse to assure new pair formation and genetic flow. (And a number of important studies show that ability to fly long distances, and proclivity to one-way dispersal are clearly not the same things.) No options will be left except ones that lead toward greater forest fragmentation.

So, what options do we really have that have potential for preserving and maintaining viable populations of northern spotted owls? I think there are basically three:

--Forest Service Alternative "L" (don't cut any more old-growth, and actively establish more): this would clearly preserve the most options for the owl. Just as clearly, it will never fly politically and it is quite probable that northern spotted owls (and all other old-growth dependent species) can survive with less than the current amount of old-growth if that which remains is appropriately located.

--Preserve all existing old-growth, but don't take specific steps to reestablish additional old-growth: this preserves less options for the owls than the Forest Service alternative, and is still a political bombshell (=a self-defeating recommendation). Also, realistically speaking, the spotted owl probably doesn't need all the existing old-growth.

--Selectively save large areas of current and potential owl habitat: I have illustrated two possibilities. The first maintains existing SOHAs, but expands their acreage to assure inclusion of the greatest densities of owls (which the current SOHAs don't do) and also connects SOHAs to one another wherever possible, to provide continuous areas of habitat. The second zones large blocks of old-growth forest, allowing timber cutting sequentially along the edges but not allowing inroads into the core of the large blocks. More specifically:
   a. The expanded management concept involves setting aside new areas of the best owl habitat, improving the chances of maintaining owl population viability over all alternatives but Forest Service "L" and the large block concept, below. It also improves the chances of survival of other old-growth species. It improves the effectiveness of the currently reserved areas, while potentially allowing more timber cutting than some other options with less chance of adverse effects on the owls. There is still the possibility that some populations of owls and other species would be ecologically and/or genetically isolated, and might not survive indefinitely.
   b. The preserved block concept does not stop timber harvest, but zones cutting both spatially and chronologically, so that the maximum amount of core habitat is preserved while owl research continues. Because it preserves the largest blocks of habitat, it would give the best chance for longterm owl population viability of all options except those that restrict any further cutting of old-growth timber.

   These two alternatives have the advantage over SOHAs in that they aim to maintain populationpair dynamics, rather than  dynamics; they preserve options while we continue research; and they reduce the potential for adverse "edge effects." They are better socio-politically than non-cutting options in that they avoid the head-on confrontation with timber economics.

These would not be easy alternatives to develop and gain approval for. Timber groups would undoubtedly be upset with any time, place or amount restrictions on cutting. Some environmental groups would almost certainly not want to give up any of the remaining old-growth forest. Nevertheless, we could come up with a biologically credible plan (for both owls and other old-growth dependent species), and we would be putting ourselves in the credible position of saying, "Look, you guys, there is a solution to this problem that addresses both wildlife and industry, if you really want a solution."

Some of you may be concerned about us "changing our mind" about SOHAs. After all, we have been recommending them for a number of years. Be that as it may, the Forest Service analysis shows clearly that it is a flawed concept and likely will not assure owl viability even if it was adopted to its fullest extent. We have already agreed with that assessment.

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AN OPEN LETTER - 5 March 1988
From: Sandy Wilbur

I have spent roughly half my twenty-five year professional career wrestling with the problems of endangered species preservation, and the other half on the more traditional administrative/managerial side of natural resources conservation. Being thus blessed (or cursed) with a dual outlook on how the world works, I can appreciate the pleas to "integrate" and "work together" that are repeating themselves more and more commonly (for instance, see the first three issues of "Conservation Biology"). One close-to-home case with which I have been involved, and in which a good dose of "conservation biology" might have worked wonders, is that of preservation of the northern spotted owl. While serving as a member of an interagency and interdisciplinary "spotted owl subcommittee," I've observed a number of failures characteristic of the way we typically attack thorny environmental problems. Because of our inability to successfully integrate a number of "sciences" into the preservation scheme, we may have lost our chance to save this unique and interesting bird.

In December 1987, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that there was insufficient evidence that the northern spotted owl deserved "endangered" classification under the Endangered Species Act. This conclusion was reached despite the facts that: (1) more information was available on the status of the northern spotted owl than was available for the majority of other species at the times they were proposed for coverage by the Act; (2) those scientists who actually studied the owl were unanimous in their conclusion that its status was critical; (3)) the wildlife agencies in all three states where the owl occurs were on record as being gravely concerned about its future; and (4) the Fish and Wildlife Service's own 1982 status report (prepared by Pete Stine and me) concluded that the northern spotted owl could be jeopardized if the land managing agencies did not take immediate decisive action to protect spotted owl habitat. (They didn't.)

Few people aware of the background of this issue "blame" the Fish and Wildlife Service for their non-action - although a National Audubon Society newsletter labeled it as an act of cowardice. This is clearly more than your average hot issue in the Pacific Northwest, where much of the economy is based on cutting the owls' required habitat, old-growth timber. But, even beyond the emotion of the "owls versus jobs" arguments, there were some personality issues that clearly stacked the deck against a purely biological assessment. For example, Senator Mark Hatfield, apparently miffed by some environmentalists' apparent lack of gratitude for his earlier support of Oregon wilderness, had clearly proclaimed that no more old-growth timber would be set aside in Oregon while he was in office. Secretary of Interior Don Hodell, boss of Fish and Wildlife Service, was on record before the status review was started that the owl was not endangered. What possible conclusion could a small and highly politicized federal agency come to except the one they did?

The seriousness of the Fish and Wildlife Service decision is not merely that it was made, but that it was the next drastic action in a long-term, concerted effort not to seriously address the issues of northern spotted owl management and old-growth forest preservation. Both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, apparently confused and overwhelmed trying to meet their mutually exclusive mandates of keeping up the timber cut but also preserving vulnerable species, had been successfully resisting preparing responsible forest management plans. Industry, Northwest politicians, and local communities all seemed in agreement that the old-growth would run out in 30 to 60 years at current cutting rates, but none seemed to have any interest in planning for the future economic well-being of the region. Had the species been "listed," it would have forced everyone to pause and take that long-term look at the situation. As it is, the federal land-managing agencies feel no impetus to prepare responsible old-growth or owl plans. The owl biologists have been told to "study the situation," and their advice is no longer sought by the land managers. The environmentalists have talked about litigation or other legal or administrative action against the Fish and Wildlife Service, but that takes time, and there is a real question if there is a case to be made (i.e., whether the listing decision is appealable). In the meantime, the cut goes on, the forests become more fragmented, and options for the owl are reduced daily.

As I see it, the three chief failures to date have been: the owl and old-growth advocates didn't work together; the "experts" haven't been entirely expert and credible; and the advocates were naïve about both the socio-political climate and process.

1. The owl and old-growth advocates didn't work together.

   Owl biologists recognized early that owls wouldn't survive without old-growth forest. Old-growth advocates recognized that additional old forest would not be preserved strictly on its esthetic merits, and that a "champion" or key issue would be needed. The northern spotted owl, as an old-growth dependent species, served as a focusing point for old-growth preservation, and as a surrogate for all the other values inherent in old-growth systems. Unfortunately, the owl people, the forest people, and the owl-forest people never got together. Some groups were advocating full protection of all remaining old-growth forest. Some were advocating a moratorium on old-growth cutting until the owl biologists worked out a plan. The owl biologists had a plan, but it only addressed trying to save remnant pairs of owls in small isolated tracts of forest, which was probably not good owl biology (see below) and certainly didn't address preserving old-growth forest for its ecosystem and esthetic values. Consequently, instead of having a point of focus, we had groups working apart and sometimes at cross purposes to one another. Without a clear proposal, with clear alternatives, it was easy for the "owls versus jobs" idea to dominate and polarize all old-growth and spotted owl discussions.

It may not have been possible to work seriously with the "no more timber cutting, period!" group, because they don't believe in negotiation or compromise. However, there are a number of other interests who could have pooled ideas and resources to preserve old-growth forest, owls, other species dependent on the same habitat, and the esthetic and recreational values of old-growth forest. The testimony of "scientists" could have given more credibility to the overall justification for old-growth preservation, while the environmentalists and preservationists could have added many more voices to expounding the case for the owl, as well as providing considerable expertise in lobbying, fund-raising, publicity, and other disciplines in which most owl biologists are notably weak. Instead, while the groups pursued their separate efforts, the cutting went on.

2. The "experts" weren't very "expert."

This is a big condemnation that I need to qualify quickly. There has been excellent natural history study of the owl, and (as I said earlier) overall there is more basic information available on this bird than on most of the species currently listed as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. The problems have come in the interpretation of basic data, and in application of findings to a meaningful conservation strategy for the owl.

For example, all spotted owl preservation plans to date have been based on the Spotted Owl Management Area (SOMA) concept. Under this type of management, spotted owl habitat is set aside in blocks, each of which is apparently (and hopefully) large enough to support an owl pair, and close enough (hopefully) to one another so that owls could fly from one block to another. This concept, developed by good "game biologists" who know the basic things to do for deer, elk, and waterfowl but not for extinction-prone species (a condemnation of the teaching at our natural resource schools, I think), was based on what owls mightlikely do, not on what they were  to do.

Had the planners been better versed in the "new" concepts that are so critical to the understanding of species occupying narrow or highly specialized niches - "island theory," metapopulations, the good and bad features of "corridors," the mechanics of juvenile dispersal, the bad side of "edge effect," pair management versus population management, minimum population densities - they would have seen that they were planning a habitat so fragmented that the spotted owl almost certainly would not have survived in it.

It would be unfair to say that the owl biologists have not grown biologically "smarter" over time. They certainly have, and the SOMA concept is losing its advocates. Unfortunately, it has become deeply ingrained in agency thinking about spotted owls and, as it clearly lacks credibility, it is easy for the agencies to argue that it is not worth disrupting forest management for a plan that probably won't work, anyway. Also, increasing wisdom in the above-mentioned disciplines has not yet helped the owl, because of the failure of owl advocates to understand another field: socio-politics.

3. The owl and old-growth advocates have been bureaucratically and socio-politically naïve.

  The people who demand that absolutely no more old-growth be cut, or who climb trees or pound iron stakes in tree trunks to keep loggers from cutting them safely, are clearly not operating in the real world. But what about those who have set their sights on the minimum survival needs of the owls, because they feel that is all the land management agencies will allow them? That was apparently the motive of the "blue ribbon committee" established from the scientific community, who graphically described the seriousness of the owls' plight by comparing them to California condors, heath hens, and other classic endangered and extinct species, then concluded in their report that it would be okay to seriously fragment and reduce the forest (into small SOMAs) and to allow major reductions in the number of owls to be maintained. Neither group was likely to have helped the owls, because both have wrongly discerned what is possible.

I want to stress: preservation of the northern spotted owl and old-growth forest involves the most direct conflict with "economics" - regional public business interest - of any vulnerable species issue yet tackled in the United States. The owl must have low elevation old-growth forest, which is currently the lifeblood of the economy of the Pacific Northwest. Everybody knows that, at current cutting rates, the timber will soon run out - and then there won't be jobs, low elevation forests, or owls - but so what? Right now, it is THE economy, and no politician is going to pick owls over people. The "no more cutting, period" folks, by refusing to even think about compromises, have alienated themselves from politicians, land management agencies, and a good share of the Pacific Northwest human population. They win small battles through injunctions, court orders, and civil disobedience, but in general the harvest goes on, to the detriment of the owls and all other old-growth species.

The SOMA people, on the other hand, continued to advocate a management scheme that their own modeling and hypothesizing had shown to be inadequate to protect the owls. Apparently they stuck to this "Titanic for owls" partly because of pride of authorship (they worked on the idea for almost ten years), and partly because they had at last got the land management agencies used to the concept (although no agency has seriously tried to implement it). Yet there are other management schemes that still might work for the owls and - more importantly - for the entire old-growth community, and that might be much more palatable to politicians and agencies because they would localize the disruption of the timber industry and would give time for both additional scientific research and long-term economic planning. Again, the lack of a good alternative - a way out of the owls versus jobs stalemate - keeps processes working to the detriment of the natural environment.

Is it too late to get smart and bring "conservation biology" into the spotted owl story? I don't know. Time is a real enemy in this case. On the other hand, it is clearly a battle worth fighting.


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