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Who’ll Stand Up for the Northern Spotted Owl?

From way back in time immemorial, a time long-lost in the annals of natural history, the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), has developed a highly specialized and remarkable niche in the moist primal forests of the redwood coast, the Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion, and up and down the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. The northern spotted owl is an apex nocturnal forest predator that has evolved into a highly-refined specialist, occupying the deep, dark, dense, and dank forests along the rugged pacific coastline, feeding on small mammals, rearing its young, and helping to maintain the delicate balance of our forest ecosystems.

The northern spotted owl, once-abundant pre-European colonization and settlement in our region, has seen a significant decline range-wide in the 20th and 21st centuries, mostly due to radical human-induced habitat changes, and more recently, the arrival of a cunning competitor. Here, in the redwood region, there were once an estimated two million acres of old-growth primal redwood forest when European settlers arrived in the 1850’s, spanning the rugged and scenic California coastline all the way from Big Sur in the south, to the Oregon border in the north. Almost all the traditional range of the coast redwoods was once home to the northern spotted owl. However, by 1968, scarcely one hundred years later, at the time of the creation of Redwood National Park, only an estimated ten percent of the original old-growth coastal redwood forest remained. Today, only approximately five percent of the original redwood forest remains.

The story is the same, more or less, across the vast Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest ecosystems. European exploration and settlement eventually lead to logging of the old-growth forests, the very unique and irreplaceable ecosystems upon which the northern spotted owl, had come to depend, and to a devastating extent.

On June 26, 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern spotted owl as “threatened,” under the federal Endangered Species Act, citing past, and ongoing habitat loss due to logging as the primary reasons for the original listing. 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, ultimately leading to the development of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994.

The northern spotted owl unwittingly became a “canary in the coal mine,” for the timber industry, on both public and private lands from the late 1980’s and even into the early 2000’s, as the debate over old-growth logging devolved into the so-called “timber wars,” that raged up and down the Pacific Northwest, including, of course, here in Humboldt County’s redwood region.

Here in 2016, despite much-improved forest management on our public lands, the northern spotted owl still finds that there are precious few, and far between, places to hide, let alone thrive, on our private lands range-wide, and here in California. Despite over 20 years of federal ESA protections, very little has changed in terms of private lands forestry practices, even with the advent of the 1973 California Forest Practice Act and associated rules, which govern private lands logging in the state. Today, there are still those who believe old-growth logging is “illegal,” in California, including on private lands. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. What little high-quality habitat remains for the northern spotted owl on our private forestlands is at constant and perpetual risk, with virtually no on-the-ground nexus to protect it.

Recently, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) the agency that regulates private lands logging, admitted that it doesn’t even keep track of how much logging of spotted owl habitat it approves annually via discretionary projects, such as Timber Harvest Plans. This doesn’t even speak to how much logging of spotted owl habitat goes on in California on private lands under non-discretionary or “ministerial,” projects, such as exemption notices, and emergency notices.

As if all this logging of habitat wasn’t bad or alarming enough, the situation is even worse for our protagonist, the northern spotted owl. The arrival of the barred owl (Strix varina), a direct competitor to the northern spotted owl, into our Pacific Northwest forests, has served to combine with and compound the effects of habitat loss, and with grim consequences. The most recent range-wide long-term demographic study on the state of northern spotted owl populations, published in 2015, suggests that the devastating one-two punch of habitat loss and barred owl competition are serving to drive the spotted owl extinct, and at an exponentially-increasing rate in recent years.

EPIC has been at the forefront of advocating for the northern spotted owl, on both public and private lands in Northwest California and beyond, since the original listing. We work from the micro (project-by-project-level), to the macro (listing petitions and regulations/policy changes), providing access to perspective of the voiceless northern spotted owl in the board rooms and meeting rooms of industry and regulators, into the very halls of the legislatures and government, and even into the courtrooms.

In April 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a positive 90-day finding on our petition under the ESA to “reclassify” or “uplist,” the northern spotted owl from a “threatened,” to an “endangered” species, citing ongoing habitat loss, and increasing and devastating effects of barred owl competitive presence. Earlier this month, February 2016, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife finally produced its extremely delinquent status report on the northern spotted owl in California, in response to a listing petition filed by EPIC in 2012 to list the owl under the California Endangered Species Act. The Department found that the northern spotted owl is “threatened” with extinction in California, and has recommended listing the owl under CESA to the California Fish and Game Commission. The final decision on the northern spotted owl CESA listing is anticipated later this year.

In a society where our forests and wildlife are reduced to assets, commodities, and of course, liabilities, by industry and government, it is citizen’s groups such as EPIC, advocating for the rights of the forest, and all the life the depends on the forest, that serve a crucial and understated role in enforcing the law, shaping the policies, and moving the discourse of this so-called “civilized,” world. For the northern spotted owl, of course, the world must seem anything but “civilized,” and instead, more like a world turned upside down. EPIC will continue our tireless efforts to protect, restore, and conserve the northern spotted owl, and the unique forest upon which it depends.


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