In the remote forests of Northwest California dwells an iconic raptor seemingly from a bygone era. The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) stealthily inhabits old growth and ‘mature’ forests, preying on wood rats, flying squirrels, and other small mammals in the dead of night with its keen vision and devastating talons.
Once an abundant and prosperous species, the Northern Spotted Owl has been in decline since at least the 1970’s and 80’s, primarily resulting from the logging of its old growth and mature forest habitat on both public and private lands. The Northern Spotted Owl was listed as a “threatened” species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in June of 1990, thus becoming the poster-child for the ongoing timber wars in the Pacific Northwest.
In May 1991, Federal Judge William Dwyer ruled in favor of environmentalists who challenged the adequacy of the U.S. Forest Service’s 1986 Forest Management Plan, enjoining 75 percent of the proposed timber sales on public lands in spotted owl critical habitat, and ultimately leading to the development of the Northwest Forest Plan. While the Northwest Forest Plan has somewhat curtailed logging of suitable owl habitat on public lands, habitat loss on these lands is still ongoing, while habitat loss for the owl on private lands continues virtually unabated to the present day.
When the Northern Spotted Owl became a federally-listed species, the State of California’s Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (Board of Forestry) scrambled to enact Forest Practice Rules that would avoid “take” of the owl as defined under the federal Act on private forestlands in the state. In the beginning, the implementation and enforcement of the Forest Practice Rules by CAL FIRE was augmented by consultation with the then-California Department of Fish and Game (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife). In 1999, CAL FIRE requested that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) provide “technical assistance” to the Department and private landowners to ensure that implementation of the Forest Practice Rules would not result in “take” of the owl.
The Service provided technical assistance to CAL FIRE and private landowners until 2008. At that time, the Service determined that it did not have the budget to continue providing technical assistance to CAL FIRE and private landowners, and requested that the budget-strapped state pay for the technical assistance program. When the state declined, the Service dropped out of providing technical assistance, and left the entire burden of review, implementation, and enforcement of individual timber harvest plans up to CAL FIRE.
In 2009, the Service provided CAL FIRE with a scathing review of existing Forest Practice Rules and the ability of the Rules to avoid “take” of the owl as defined under the ESA. This document, entitled “Regulatory and Scientific Basis for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Guidance for Evaluation of Take for Northern Spotted Owls on Private Timberlands in California’s Northern Interior Region” provided a review of the best available science related to the owl, and detailed the Service’s years of experience with providing technical assistance to CAL FIRE and private landowners. The Service concluded:
“…our combined experience with hundreds of THPs indicates that the cumulative effects of repeated entries within many NSO home ranges has reduced habitat quality to a degree causing reduced occupancy rates and frequent site abandonment. In a large proportion of technical assistance letters to CAL FIRE and industrial timberland owners during the past five years, we noted the lack of NSO responses at historic territories, and described habitat conditions considered inadequate to support continued occupancy and reproduction”(emphasis added).
The Service also provided CAL FIRE and private landowners with “take” avoidance guidelines that the agency believed would serve the needs of the owl better than existing Rules. This guidance, however, is only voluntary, and is not codified in existing regulation. Thus, private landowners have the alternative of relying on the existing and inadequate Rules.
Meanwhile, CAL FIRE, an agency with virtually no biological expertise, and virtually no independent biological experts, has been left to navigate the treacherous landscape of ensuring “take” avoidance on its own, knowing that existing Rules are not be adequate, but that the guidance provided by the listing agency is only voluntary. CAL FIRE thus finds itself in the precarious position of needing to determine that “take” has been avoided, while not having the expertise or authority to determine the likelihood of whether or not “take” will occur. What’s more, CAL FIRE has been left without the input of either the US Fish and Wildlife Service or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The latter agency has virtually abandoned its review of projects that may affect the Northern Spotted Owl since the late 90’s.
While most private landowners have voluntarily shifted towards compliance with the Service’s “take” avoidance guidelines, some landowners, most notably Sierra Pacific Industries, have stubbornly clung to the old, and largely out-of-date existing Forest Practice Rules. Since the Service transitioned out of providing technical assistance, SPI has continued to clearcut log thousands of acres of suitable NSO habitat without the benefit of independent scientific expertise reviewing its projects.
The latest and best available science on the condition of Northern Spotted Owl populations indicates that the species is reeling from a precipitous decline in recent years, both in California and across the species’ range. In particular, apparent survival and reproductive rates are alarmingly low. Here on the redwood coast, as with elsewhere in the owl’s range, the incursion of the aggressive and invasive barred owl has likely contributed to these declines. In addition, the advent of increased use of rodenticides in egregious cannabis agriculture operations and other rural residential and industrial activities is now documented to be a significant problem for the owl. Meanwhile, habitat loss through timber harvest and fire continue to confound owl conservation and recovery efforts.
The science shows that the Northern Spotted Owl is in increasing peril. The decline of the owl is indicative of over a century of intensive forest management that has depleted our forests and inexorably altered the landscape that the owls once knew.
EPIC Steps Up To Advocate for the Owl
In 2010, EPIC launched its Northern Spotted Owl Self-Defense campaign. This campaign aims to use a multitude of tactics to conserve the owl. These tactics include monitoring, commenting on, and challenging logging projects that may affect the owl on both public and private lands, engaging with the Board of Forestry to improve rules regarding owl protections, and launching a campaign to end the use of “super-toxic” rat poison in cannabis agriculture operations. EPIC has also filed a petition with the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) requesting that it list the owl as either “threatened” or “endangered” under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), parallel to filing a petition with the Service requesting that it “reclassify” or “up-list” the owl from a “threatened” to an “endangered” species under the federal ESA. Few organizations in the Western United States are as active in working for better protections for the owl than EPIC has been in recent years.
The politics around conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl remain fraught with a reluctance on the part of both the Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to ‘rock the boat’ in terms of enforcing the tenants of the ESA and CESA on private forestlands in California. The Service has thus far failed to provide us with an initial 90-day finding on our petition to “reclassify” or “up-list” the owl, despite the fact that the petition was filed over a year and a half ago. Meanwhile, the Commission, after much delay, voted to accept EPIC’s petition to list the owl under CESA in August 2013, with a one-year CESA “candidacy” period initiated in December 2013. Despite the “candidacy” for the Northern Spotted Owl under CESA, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has informed CAL FIRE that it intends to rely on existing rules and regulations to protect the owl against illegal “take” resulting from timber harvest activities on private lands.
So, who will stand up for the Northern Spotted Owl? With both responsible agencies either unwilling or incapable of reviewing plans for proper implementation and enforcement of CESA and the ESA, and CAL FIRE left virtually on its own to ensure that these laws are enforced, business as usual seems to be the mantra of the day for the timber industry. Meanwhile, the owl, faced with a wide-array of threats to its survival in the wild, hangs on the precipice, a precarious ledge, from which there may be no return.
The health of the Northern Spotted Owl is indicative of the health and condition of our forests, and indeed our watersheds. EPIC will continue its multi-faceted approach to owl protection and conservation, with the goal of seeing larger, older trees on the landscape, an elimination of the use of “super-toxic” rat poisons in our communities, and a return ultimately of more owls in the forest. EPIC aims to protect, conserve, and restore the owl in California and beyond.
Please join our efforts to protect, conserve, and restore the Northern Spotted Owl and our forest landscapes. The plight of the owl is a harbinger of peril for all of us. We must all work together to restore our forests and protect our wildlife.