Latest Study Shows Northern Spotted Owl Populations in Rapid Decline

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Monday, December 14th, 2015

NSO babyThe northern spotted owl is in decline across its entire range and its rate of decline is increasing—that is the conclusion of a major demographic study produced by federal scientists, published Wednesday, December 9, 2015, in the journal “The Condor.” The study examined survey results from monitoring areas across the range of the imperiled owl, and results suggest that immediate and aggressive improvements in existing conservation efforts will be necessary if the owl is to persist in the wild.

The northern spotted owl was listed as a “threatened” species under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1990. Loss of old-growth forests, on which the owl depends, to logging across the Pacific Northwest on both federal and non-federal lands was the impetus behind the original listing, and eventually served as the basis for the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan, the forest plan that now governs activities on federal lands in the range of the owl.

However, the over 25 years of federal ESA protections, including the implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan for federal lands, has not been enough to curtail the decline of the northern spotted owl. The latest demographic study indicates that habitat loss continues to plague the owl range-wide, and that the expansion of the barred owl into the historic range of the spotted owl has further confounded efforts to protect and conserve northern spotted owls in the wild.

EPIC is Fighting for Owls

The latest demographic study results for the northern spotted owl confirms EPIC’s worse fears about the perilous condition of owl populations in California and across the species’ range, and shows alarming trends and grim prospects for the conservation of the owl. After reviewing the results of the last demographic study results for the northern spotted owl (Forsman et al. 2011), EPIC understood that more aggressive and immediate conservation measures for the owl were necessary if the species is to survive in the wild.

Taking this into account, EPIC initiated a two-pronged approach to increasing the listing status and conservation options for the northern spotted owl. In 2012, EPIC filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, requesting that the agency “up-list” or “reclassify’ the northern spotted owl from a “threatened” to an “endangered’ species under the federal ESA. In conjunction, EPIC also filed a listing petition for the northern spotted owl under the California Endangered Species Act with the California Fish and Game Commission.

Agency Inaction in the Face of Declining Owl Populations

Our federal “reclassification” petition for the northern spotted owl has been mired in agency heel-dragging on the part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although the “reclassification” petition was submitted to the Service in 2012, the agency did not even produce its initial 90-day evaluation and finding on the merits of the petition until April, 2015, and only then under the threat of imminent litigation from EPIC.

The listing petition for the northern spotted owl under CESA has similarly been subject to incomprehensible agency delays and heel-dragging, which has been perpetrated by both the California Fish and Game Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It took the Fish and Game Commission nearly a year before it even held the initial hearing on the merits of our petition to list the spotted owl. Although the spotted owl became a “candidate” for listing under CESA in December, 2013, and was afforded temporary protections, the final hearing on the merits of the CESA listing petition for the northern spotted owl has yet to be scheduled, largely as a result of the failure of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to prepare and produce a status review and report for the owl within statutorily-required timeframes. At present, there is no date-certain for the Department to produce and submit the report to the Fish and Game Commission, despite the fact that the report is now over six-month delinquent.

EPIC has also been working to challenge, critique, and improve the protective measures afforded to the northern spotted owl during the course of logging operations on private forestlands under the California Forest Practice Act and Forest Practice Rules. Logging operations on private forestlands in California have been poorly-regulated and poorly-monitored, particularly since 2008, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended its participation in the review and approval process for private lands timber harvest operations. The lack of independent scientific expertise to guide the review and approval process for private lands THPs, combined with the antiquated and ineffective regulatory constraints on the private lands logging industry, has effectively hung the northern spotted owl out to dry, and facilitated the continuance of “business as usual.”

EPIC will continue advocate for increased, and more immediate and aggressive measures to conserve the northern spotted owl.

NSO Population Declines, New Study Reports Final EPIC WFLC Press Release

The Effects of habitat, Climate, and Barred Owls on Long-term Demography of Northern Spotted Owls – The Condor Volume 118, 2016 pp.57-116