Spotted Owls and the NW Forest Plan- Do We Have a Formal Lessons Learned?

Bird is still declining.. have we learned anything?

Bird is still declining.. have we learned anything?

I ran across this from Bob Berwyn the other day..below is an excerpt. Here are a couple of thoughts from me.

First, according to DellaSalla (not really an objective person, but…) “proposed logging on the Klamath National Forest across 40,000 acres could adversely impact 70 spotted owl activity centers.” Yet info I have from people working in the woods in Oregon suggests that there are many, many protections in pace for actual activity centers. So how would that actually work? Are the protections not thought to be effective in some specific way by DellaSalla?

Second, in my opinion, because a species is outcompeted does not mean that the “older forests” are in danger.. they are just one species. You could argue that the American Chestnut was certainly more of a “flagship species” and more important to a variety of species, and the Appalachian forests are still going strong.. they are just different.

Third, if we follow “habitat loss” as being always a problem, regardless of the importance of other factors, then should Oregon put a moratorium on any housebuilding or other forms of loss? Or is it only timber sales? (this reminds me a bit of Indiana bat). My concern is just about the logic and utility of, if something difficult to stop is the problem (say a disease, or a competitor), stopping everything else just because you can stop the other things. It seems to me like the policy equivalent of the “streetlight effect.”

Fourth, and relating to the title of this post, it seems to me that the NW Forest Plan was a great experiment (by “great” I mean with extremely significant impacts over broad acreages, not necessarily successful in terms of meeting any specific stated objectives) and if the fire folks can do “lessons learned” on fires that clearly impact folks and ecosystems less than the NW Forest Plan, shouldn’t someone do it on this effort?

We could get public involvement on the questions to ask. Some that have occurred to me are: could we have predicted the barred owl? Why did we think habitat management would take care of the owl when clearly it hasn’t?
Was the degree of monitoring necessary? Could it have been done at lower cost?

How much are the Feds and State (all branches) spending on: monitoring, studying, shooting barred owls? Could these efforts be better coordinated across agencies and the level of info improved? What info do we really need today, given all that we have learned?

Could the Plan in general have met more of the objectives at a lower social and economic cost? Could it have been more successful biologically?

When the President was there, it seemed like there was political compromise and interaction with the public and elected officials. How did that interact with the history since and the use of ESA as a policy instrument?

What about the whole interagency management group? How much money did that cost? If coordinating among agencies was successful there, is it a model that should be replicated?

Maybe all of this is known, and of course, I haven’t been watching it very closely as I haven’t been working in the NW for a while. But it seems like something that deserves some serious formal attention.

According to the USFWS, the two main threats to the survival of the northern spotted owl are habitat loss and competition from barred owls. Barred owls have spread westward, encroaching on spotted owl territories and out-competing them.

Conservation advocates said the USFWS must acknowledge the role of habitat loss as a key factor in the continued decline of the species.

“The spotted owl is a flagship species that symbolizes the plight of older forests in the Pacific Northwest,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Geos Institute. “The owl and older forests share a common plight, each hanging on to what little remains under the auspices of the Northwest Forest Plan,” said DellaSala, who was on the US Fish & Wildlife Service recovery team for the owl from 2006-2008.

The old-growth forests of the region, stretching from California’s redwoods to the Olympic Peninsula’s majestic spruce-hemlock forests, are critical for other imperiled species, including the marbled murrelet, Pacific fisher, red-tree vole (southern Oregon coast), as well as Pacific salmon runs. Today only about 20 percent of these ancient forests remain, primarily on federal lands.

“Tthe best way to save the spotted owl and hundreds of species that depend on similar old forest habitat is to protect more habitat from logging so spotted owls can eventually co-exist with invading barred owls.”

The Northwest Forest Plan has helped reduce habitat loss on federal lands since 1994, but the threat from barred owls has intensified. Preliminary results from an experiment testing the effects of removing barred owls from select areas of northern spotted owl habitat show promise in benefitting northern spotted owls and will help inform this review.

“The best tools we have to prevent spotted owls from going extinct are continued habitat protection and barred owl management, both of which are recommended in the recovery plan,” said Paul Henson, Oregon supervisor for the USFWS.

“On a positive note, the experimental removal of barred owls is showing real promise, with early reports indicating that spotted owl populations rebound when barred owl populations are reduced. Our review of the spotted owl will tell us whether current efforts to address threats are sufficient.”

According to DellaSala, federal agencies may actually be hindering the recovery of the spotted owl by permitting more logging activities in the region.

For example, proposed logging on the Klamath National Forest across 40,000 acres could adversely impact 70 spotted owl activity centers.


  1. I love that picture of a spotted owl sitting on a yew tree – two classic old-growth species together.

    Sharon has “rantled” off a lot of points.

    First, it looks like the reporter said there were 70 owl centers affected, not Mr. DellaSala. Maybe the reporter is not aware of the fine distinctions between nest centers, activitiy centers, and owl home ranges. While there may be some protection of nest patches, the protection for owl home ranges is lacking, especially during salvage logging. The gap between disturbance ecology and salvage practices remains cavernous. For instance, science shows that burned forests are generally still useful to owls, but burned and salvage logged forests are much less useful to owls. Science also shows that burned forests are much more likely to develop into complex old forests if they start as complex young forests (and are not salvage logged.)

    Second, Mr. DellaSala’s point is that spotted owls and old forests both depend on the protections of the Northwest Forest Plan, which are currently under threat in Congress (e.g., Wyden, DeFazio, Hastings legislation), and in administrative processes (e.g., Secretarial Pilot projects trying to reboot clearcutting, Gordy Reeves trying to shrink riparian reserves, WOPR Jr, NWFP Revisions, several attempts to eliminate survey and manage requirements). Owls and old forests are not threatened in exactly the same way, but one could argue that there is some rough symmetry between spotted owls competing with barred owls, and old forests competing with the timber industry.

    Third, “homebuilding” as a land use practice is a very limited problem in Oregon, because Oregon has a celebrated statewide land use program that encourages compact urban development within “urban growth boundaries” and discourages conversion of high valued forest lands. That being said, reducing demand for wood products would be helpful. If wood products reflected the full cost of production (including endangered species recovery costs, and climate change mitigation costs), then wood would cost more and demand would decline and owls and climate would benefit.

    Also, barred owl competition and habitat conservation are directly related to each other. When two territorial species are competing for limited space and similar food sources, it is axiomatic that proving more habitat will increase the chances of co-existence, while reducing habitat will increase the chances of competitive exclusion. This is clearly shown in David Wiens research on the two owls.

    Fourth, it would be helpful to review the success of the Northwest Forest Plan in meeting objectives. It was very successful in reducing the rate of habitat loss, improving watershed health indicators, and transitioning the NW economy from timber dependence to diversification. Also, in spite of a massive disinformation campaign by the timber industry, the agencies records clearly show that the NWFP met the timber targets established by Congress. The Plan also significantly reduced conflict and controversy, especially after the agencies began complying with survey and manage requirements and focusing on thinning young stands instead of converting old forests.

    There is also room for improvement. The barred owl and climate chance strongly favor a policy of retaining all suitable nesting, roosting, foraging habitat and high biomass forests.

    The agencies were aware of the barred owl invasion when the plan was adopted 20 years ago, but they did not include it in their plans. They assumed that all suitable habitat would be available to the spotted owl, but that assumption is now clearly incorrect. The agencies could have done a much better job by addressing the barred owl earlier.

    A lot of money is spent on monitoring in part because Judge Dwyer said sued a stern warning that it needed to be done.

    The plan would have been more successful both economically, socially and biologically if all the older forests were taken off the table sooner. Sharon seems to take the stale old view that killing trees provides an economic benefit, but when externalities are included, the evidence does not back up that assumption. Industry mechanization and consolidation have resulted in an industry that needs lots of wood but few workers. The destruction of ecosystems provides few social benefits. The greatest economic asset in the NW is the quality of life that attracts and retains high skilled workers and employers.

    Interagency coordiation started off strong, but has broken down. They disbanded the Regional Ecosystem Office (REO) years ago. The province advisory committees have mostly been disbanded. The agencies have downsized and with it their capacity to engage the public. Sad.

    • The difference in the eco-community’s view of Federal salvage logging and the actual post-logging conditions “remain cavernous”, IMHO. The claims of “clearcutting” and “destruction” show just how desperate some litigious folks are about losing their legal loopholes.

      Again, the presence of owls in burned forests means nothing. I’m sure that hunting in such forests isn’t very good, especially in the first few years after the blaze. If there wasn’t much prey in those nesting habitats, there certainly won’t be much in those next few years after the fire.

      AND, there is one other fact that needs to be illustrated. Owls are ALWAYS at risk to other predators, wherever they might be. Yes, they share both nesting and foraging habitats with the northern goshawk, which does prey upon owls. The “safety” issue for owls seems to not be very significant in deciding whether to thin snags in a burned forest. The “Owl Defense” against salvage logging seems to be a sham, to me.

  2. Second, thanks for helping me learn a new word “rantle”- good old urban dictionary. I may have not done a lot of editing (the ramble part) but I think I was asking questions, not “ranting”. One definition I found was “speak or shout at length in a wild, impassioned way.” Is 544 words “at length”? Was that impassioned? I thought it was typical wonk talk.
    But other than that here are a few points I disagree with:

    1. You said “For instance, “science shows” that burned forests are generally still useful to owls, but burned and salvage logged forests are much less useful to owls
    Now this strikes me as an overgeneralization to the extent that it can’t possibly be true. For one thing whenever “science shows” something it’s based on a specific study and any study has lots of caveats. Now if we imagine “burned forests” they can be in a variety of conditions, from going back to grasses and shrubs to clumps of remaining trees, depending on the intensity of the fire, the fuel conditions, etc. including the spatial layout of the same, which is relevant because birds fly. Similarly “salvage logging ” can be done in a variety of ways. So it is unlikely that someone compared all the different possibilities. It might be more helpful to look at specific studies.

    2. You said “the old view that “killing trees provides economic benefit”” yes, it does when conditions are right. If you go to mills that are in existence now, they are, in fact, employing people and people are feeding their children, etc. . Further, if we are talking salvage many/all of those trees are already dead. But I found your phrasing interesting.. here in Colorado I guess you could say we kill Cannabis plants for economic benefit, and Solanum plants, and so on.

    I am curious though about meeting the timber targets… seems like that would be easy enough to figure out. I’m sure someone around must know the timber side of the story.

  3. Thanks, 2nd Law. I’d like to react to a couple of points you didn’t.

    “My concern is just about the logic and utility of, if something difficult to stop is the problem (say a disease, or a competitor), stopping everything else just because you can stop the other things. It seems to me like the policy equivalent of the “streetlight effect.””

    You don’t stop the other things “just because you can.” You do it because the law requires it, which is the case because those who make laws said you need to do what you can because it might make a difference (unlike the ‘streetlight effect’ where it won’t). (Sometimes that may allow for more flexibility than others –

    “You could argue that the American Chestnut was certainly more of a “flagship species” and more important to a variety of species, and the Appalachian forests are still going strong.. they are just different.”

    I’m sure there are biologists who would disagree with the characterization of Appalachian forests as ‘going strong’ without chestnut trees (like Yellowstone was ‘going strong’ without wolves). But the relevant national policy is that ‘different’ is not acceptable. The purpose of ESA is to conserve ecosystems. If nothing else that means to not take actions that would cause them to become ‘different,’ such as by causing the extinction of species. Regardless of the role and management of barred owls, cutting down big trees does not conserve the ecosystems spotted owls need.

  4. Jon- if the law requires doing things that don’t work, then I don’t think it’s a very good law. My point was that a very spatially large, and economically impactful policy experiment, in my opinion, deserves some attention as to what worked, what didn’t and how the next effort could be improved.

  5. There just happens to be a process for doing that in the 2012 Planning Rule. It’s called an assessment (219.6), it’s required as part of revising forest plans (219.5), it’s used to determine the need to change forest plans (219.7), and it’s open to the public (219.4). No reason it can’t be done across multiple forests (219.2). I think your questions will get some attention.

  6. They prefer to nest in forests with very large trees. They are also territorial, so only one pair can nest in that area at one time. In those large forests, there isn’t much for an owl to eat, so they also need open forests, for better hunting. Currently, we have the wrong mix of habitats to support larger populations. Also, the barred owl will drive the spotted owl out of the best nesting habitats, where it can.

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