Photo by Francois-Xavier De Ruydts
The Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) is one of the most iconic species in the Pacific Northwest. The Strix occidentalis caurina is an umbrella species representing hundreds of rare plants and animals that depend on old-growth and mature forests for survival. Thirty years ago it was protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It was responsible for spurring the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan and changing national forest management on nearly 25 million acres in Washington, Oregon and California. Three decades later, the spiral toward extinction is accelerating.
In the first two decades since it was listed under the ESA, four million acres of habitat was lost due to logging and one million acres by wildfire. The most recent region wide study, completed in 2016, found that the owl was nearly gone from most of its northern range and was declining at a rate of 4% per year. The last NSO in the Redwood National and State Parks was recorded in 2010. This leaves only the Klamath Siskiyou region to serve as a vital source population for the entire three state area.
What is most concerning is that habitat loss and “take” of the owl to accommodate logging on both public and private lands is still occurring at an unhindered pace. Within just the past five years over 50,000 acres of habitat loss and degradation and over two hundred owls have been allowed for “take” in the Klamath Siskiyou region on national forests. On top of that, the larger more aggressive Barred owl has taken over most of the range, leaving even fewer Strix to reproduce. Wildfire has both positive and negative affects, with the Klamath Siskiyou region experiencing the highest amount of habitat loss from fire.
Logging and Barred owl invasion are clear threats to dwindling NSO populations. The measurement of habitat benefit and loss from wildfire is still unclear yet we know that much has been lost and fire seasons are getting longer. Further, affects of the climate crisis and the use of rodenticides from trespass marijuana cultivation are less understood but certainly compounding the peril of not only the Strix but all other old-growth and mature forest dependent plants and animals.
Despite all of the recommendations to maintain habitat in the 2012 NSO Recovery Plan and over two hundred studies—“take” and extensive habitat loss from logging is still allowed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the US Forest Service (USFS). The Klamath Siskiyou region is critical for NSO recovery throughout its entire range and the combined threats are accelerating; yet the USFWS and USFS fail on many levels. EPIC petitioned to uplist the Strix from threatened to endangered in 2012, that determination is long overdue, as well as an updated status review. Without a moratorium on “take” and habitat loss and a plan to deal with the Barred owl, the Northern spotted owl may be extinct within the next thirty years.