Spotted Owl Recovery Plan- Oregonian Article

Spotted owl recovery plan recommends preserving old forests and doing away with new invaders

Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian Here’s the link.

Again, it’s not really clear to me why “Controlled removal of barred owls to determine if spotted owls reclaim territory would be a worthwhile experiment, he (I think Forsman?) but isn’t financially or logistically sustainable.” killing creatures to find out whether a policy works- a policy you could never implement anyway, is the right thing to do. Note whatever kind of question this is, it is not a “science” question.

One of the commentors to the Oregonian piece wrote that there is a difference between “not doing something” (e.g., cutting trees), doing something (growing more habitat), and doing something that involves direct killing of other species. I am more focused on killing to do something that can’t work to save the species, but there is an ethical issue even if killing one species of owl would be effective in saving another species.

A long-anticipated recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, due by Friday, recommends preserving the best of its favored old-forest habitat across federal, state and private property lines and killing barred owls that compete with it for territory.

Those actions can steer spotted owls back from the brink of extinction, the plan says, but it could take 30 years and cost $147 million.

Whether conserving habitat and reducing competitors will save the spotted owl, however, is an unanswerable question.

“We do our best and hope for the best,” says Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist considered among the nation’s leading experts on spotted owls. “There’s a lot we don’t have control over.”

The owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, touching off the Northwest “timber wars” and clamping down on federal forest harvests. The first recovery plan surfaced in 1992, but disappeared in a flurry of lawsuits and policy rhetoric that has marked the issue ever since.

The new plan is a revision of a 2008 document so marred by political interference that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which wrote it, agreed it was scientifically indefensible and asked a federal judge to send it back.

The revised version has been stalled since 2010 by threats of lawsuits. It applies across the spotted owl’s range in Oregon, Washington and Northern California; fish and wildlife’s Portland office coordinated the work. The plan does not regulate logging or habitat practices, but agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management must consult the plan as they manage forests.

Initial reaction to the plan is mixed.

Forsman and fellow owl scientist Bob Anthony, a retired fish and wildlife professor at Oregon State University, say success is uncertain because of the barred owl, which migrated from the east and was first documented in the Northwest in the 1970s. It’s larger, more aggressive, favors the same habitat and is a less picky eater than the spotted owl.

“Given that the barred owl is part of the equation,” Forsman said, “it’s no longer clear that protecting habitat is going to do the job.”

Controlled removal of barred owls to determine if spotted owls reclaim territory would be a worthwhile experiment, he said, but isn’t financially or logistically sustainable.

“The best we can do is manage a considerable amount of habitat for spotted owls and let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “It’s way too early to give up at this point and say there’s nothing we can do for spotted owls.”

Anthony said competition between owls makes it crucial to conserve as much suitable habitat as possible. “The key issue is how much habitat can be preserved, and what will be socially and politically acceptable to the residents of the Pacific Northwest,” he said.

Others believe the recovery plan is a good step.

“A really excellent effort to incorporate the best science available,” said Paula Swedeen, director of ecosystem service programs for the Pacific Forest Trust, which works with forest owners on a variety of sustainability projects. “This plan says there is high-quality habitat everywhere that needs to be preserved to give the owl the best chance possible.”

Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, welcomed the plan’s increased emphasis on owl protection on private and state forests, which he said have become a “black hole” for the owl.

“Because of heavy cutting, it was putting more protection onus on federal land,” he said. “They (non-federal lands) need to do their part,” he said.

But he said a better solution is taking old forests “off the chopping block” completely He said the timber industry in Washington and Northern California have “moved on” from dependence on old-growth logs harvested on federal land, but Oregon lags behind.

“Why pick at this scab of logging the old forest?” he asked. Thinning older forests would provide logs needed by mills, he said.

A spokesman for the Oregon Forest Industries Council said key pieces of the plan are incomplete. “We don’t know what’s in it, it’s very vague,” said Ray Wilkeson. “It’s like an empty shell.”

He said it’s unclear how federal officials will use computer modeling to determine the owl’s habitat requirements. A modeling tool developed for the recovery plan combines information from 4,000 spotted owl sites and 20 years of demographic data to depict where owls nest and roost now and where they are likely to do so in the future. The model allows researchers to plug in variables such as the presence of barred owls and the impact of climate change.

14 thoughts on “Spotted Owl Recovery Plan- Oregonian Article”

  1. I think the only solution, due to litigation and other factors, is to let spotted owl territories disappear, “naturally”, through both human and natural ignitions. Once that happens, people will solely blame “climate change” and barred owls for the spotted owls demise. Yes, let’s “preserve” all fuels, live or dead. However, as these pieces of forest burn to the ground, they need to lose their “protections” under the ESA. It is very clear that only destruction of “owl circles” and nest stands will convince people that strict preservation doesn’t work.

  2. Here is what I posted on this article with, the Internet blog version of the Oregonian:

    My guess is that something goofy is going to come of this — something like killing thousands of barred hoot owls in order to “save” a lesser number of spotted hoot owls.

    The bottom line is that there are far greater differences in physiology, diet, vocalizations, coloration, preferred habitat, and size between Pygmies and Swedes than between spotted and barred hoot owls. Greater differences, too, between German shepherds, French poodles, and Mexican hairlesses.

    How can breeding members of the animal kingdom that produce viable young be considered separate “species” based on slight differences in size, vocalization, and markings? When did that happen?

    The ESA has unwittingly caused billions of dollars of damage and ruined hundreds of thousands of businesses, rural communities, and families via the opportunistic actions of obstructionist nonprofit organizations and their lawyers during the past 30 years, with virtually all damage coming at the direct expense of taxpayers and rural citizens.

    Whatever the “plan” is going to be this time, there can be no doubt that it will continue being based on politics rather than biology or common sense. More “Best Available Science” in action.

    What a waste.

  3. Many of you know that I am a plant geneticist/evolutionary biologist, so here goes:

    Here’s the definition of species from

    capable of interbreeding to produce fertile offspring.

    The production of fertile offspring has always been key to the biological definition of species. So horse and donkey are separate species because their offspring are infertile. Clydesdales and Shetlands same species because their offspring are fertile. Now, in the absence of being able to get the organisms together to breed, people do use other characteristics.

    However, based on this report, these two species do interbreed in nature.

    On the other hand if you take pines, jack and lodgepole are generally referred to as separate species but hybridize where they grow together. Trees do a lot of “hybridizing” with related “species.” So this ideal of “biological species” is not always how we communicate about species with regard to trees. It probably wouldn’t matter much except for ESA.

    Do I remember something about ESA protecting “distinct population segments” below the species level? Perhaps from the fish literature? And some research based on telling them apart in different ways, genetically or through taxonomy? If I remember correctly these segments were within a given species, and required to be protected by ESA.

  4. Ahhhh, the eternal battle of the “lumpers” versus the “splitters”. There are two species of Clarkia that differ only in the color of their blooms. One is more rare than the other, and is listed for that reason. Will the northern spotted owl go the way of the chestnuts, due to human activities (well-intended, or not)?? What shouldn’t be overlooked is that humans helped the barred owl to migrate across Canada.

  5. I look forward to seeing an in-depth post about the agency which created this problem in the first place, because discrimination of the problem’s cause and effect is in order here.

    First, what, exactly, is the problem here? Is it about a plan (ESA) to save a species from forest mismanagement, or is the problem rampant mismanagement and lack of accountability?

    The Cause is clear: unsustainable and biologically destructive silvicultural practices leading to large scale disruption of native forest communities and human forest-dependent communities.

    The directly attributable effect: T&E status or extinction of several old growth dependent species which leads to large scale socio-economic disruption.

    Why aren’t the causes of the problem talked about on this blog– that of unsustainable and highly damaging timber harvest practices which have long since abandoned the precautionary principle?

    Where’s the ethical questions being raised around such highly damaging and unsustainable practices? Where’s the personal and institutional accountability in this mega-mismanagement?

    As Sharon notes of ESA implementation there are ethical issues to address— but no ethical issues of Forest Plan timber harvest schedules and failed conservation strategies?

    The record on this is clear: most everyone with common sense and a modicum of biological awareness saw this train wreck coming long before it occurred. We have regulatory agencies which seek accountability in actual train wrecks and implement regulatory revisions to reduce or eliminate the causes. Why not with recurring forest mismanagement?

    Rather than resorting to being bystanders wringing their hands about how much it’ll cost to clean up the effects of the train wreck, why not examine causes and become advocates for prevention to make sure it doesn’t ever happen again?

    • Yep, the standard preservationist MO is to blame the past to block the future. Preserving unhealthy and overcrowded forests is ALSO “highly damaging and unsustainable”. If those destructive activities of the past didn’t “destroy” all our forests, what makes you think that today’s practices, techniques and technology will be an “unsustainable and biologically destructive silvicultural practice”??

      I’ve never been a fan of clearcutting, except as a last resort, to restore currently unhealthy forests that cannot regenerate themselves in a timely manner. The last clearcut I was involved in was in 1989, and that hillside was full of dead and dying bugkill. We haven’t had clearcuts in California National Forests since 1993. Yes, many of us foresters have seen the trainwrecks, as they have piled up across this country in the form of catastrophic wildfires and vast “red and dead pines”. Sorry that you didn’t believe us, David, but our predictions continue to come true. My views and predictions have been on the Internet since 1997, and have been consistently true.

      “Rather than resorting to being bystanders wringing their hands about how much it’ll cost to clean up the effects of the train wreck, why not examine causes and become advocates for prevention to make sure it doesn’t ever happen again?” Why not apply this to the drought, insect and catastrophic wildfire problems? MUST we throw the baby out with the bathwater?!? MUST we preserve dead forests?!? MUST we eliminate ESA habitat through firestorms?!? MUST we abandon human stewardship of our public lands?!?

      Sorry, David, but it’s looking like Americans aren’t buying that samo samo die, rot and burn strategy so cherished by the preservationist community.

  6. David:

    1) “The Cause” is not at all “clear.” Your assumptions regarding “old growth dependent species” sound out-dated, superficial and forced. Where are you getting this information?

    2) What does “highly damaging and unsustainable practices” mean? By whose assessment? And how evaluated?

    3) When did the USFS (or anyone) ever adhere to a “precautionary principle,” much less “abandon” such a concept? Why should/would such a concept be adopted?

    4) I totally agree with your statement regarding “failed conservation strategies,” but I’ll bet we mean entirely different things by this phrase.

    5) What do you think is more harmful to forests and its denizens: scientific management (including logging and prescribed burning) of fuels, or catastrophic-scale wildfires, such as are occurring in Arizona and New Mexico at this time?

    6) Why do you think these fires of the past 25 years tend to occur far more often in “protected” Wilderness areas rather than private forestlands?


  7. Dear me Bob, where shall I begin? (I guess at square one and the NWFP and court decision.)

    Are you suggesting the cause of the decline of the spotted owl was NOT due to unsustainable scale of the elimination of its preferred habitat (multilayered canopy and understory associated with old growth forest) and the even aged management practices of the USFS and private land owners, which set the stage for competition by barred owls displacing recovering spotted owl populations? (If so, the rest of this response is probably a waste of my time.)

    More importantly, if so, you’re not only differing with me, but with Dr. Jerry Franklin and a host of other leading scientists including a carefully selected a team of biologists, called the Interagency Scientific Committee (ISC), convened by the USFS, BLM, USFWS, and the National Park Service, to propose a management strategy for the Spotted Owl.

    In chronological order:

    1. Perhaps you may (incorrectly) think “my assumptions” (they are, in fact, representative of tested hypotheses of many others who routinely cite “old growth dependent species” as anything BUT an “outdated, superficial, and forced” phrase which could be part of your failure to understand my perspective on the issue), but I assure you, the conclusions as well as the phrasing are routinely used in USFS documents, academia and published scientific papers.

    2. The large scale (and unsustainable) use of even aged management is highly damaging to old growth dependent species which have evolved over millennia to multi-layered coarse canopy structure with a diverse understory.

    3. There was a time when, (in Aldo Leopold’s words, this blog’s oft-cited visionary) such as, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts”– (ie. old growth dependent species) were regarded as an ethical responsibility to maintain (if not a legal mandate by NFMA). Aldo Leopold stated in his book, ‘A Sand County Almanac’: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This has led to much inspiration and advocacy for adopting the precautionary principle in USFS management. Alas, it has been “long since abandoned”.

    So, it becomes self-evident that the precautionary principle as applied to forest management, (as you state, “Why should/would such a concept be adopted?”) that you see no value to the practical application of, and ethical premise around, the precautionary principle. Again, we are so ethically divergent on these matters as to merit recognizing unbridgeable chasms here.

    4. I’ll “bet we mean totally different things” by “failed conservation strategies” too.

    5. This question unnecessarily confines the issue to an incorrect, incomplete, either/or corollary, (as well as confuses causation with effect) and as such, is a pointless query.

    6. My sources underscore the role of widespread agency mismanagement (lack of thinning in even aged management) and aggressive fire suppression has elevated the threat of catastrophic fires on public lands.

    There is no question as to why wildfires are occurring at a far greater frequency than in the recent past few centuries: human caused climate change — exacerbated by a radical departure from previous indigenous management regimes which understood what happens when understory fuels were allowed to accumulate over time.

    Larry, according to Wikipedia,
    “Stewardship is an ethic that embodies cooperative planning and management of environmental resources with organizations, communities and others to actively engage in the PREVENTION of LOSS of HABITAT and FACILITATE its RECOVERY in the interest of long-term SUSTAINABILITY.” (my emphasis added)

    Bob and Larry,
    Stewardship is NOT (ethics-free) resource exploitation at all costs.

    • Dear Me David:

      Yes, you are right — my perspectives on forest management have been the polar opposites of most of Dr. Franklin’s theories and assertions since Day One. These differences were discussed in some detail by Jim Peterson in an Evergreen Magazine interview he did with me in 1993 (now available online). Then and there I clearly predicted that if the Franklin et al. approach were adopted in the Clinton Plan for Northwest Forests that we would continue to experience the recent (at that time) spate of catastrophic-scale forest wildfires — as exemplified by the 1987 fire year.

      Voila. The fact that you blame these and subsequent events (at least in part) on “Global Warming” does not surprise me.

      Yes, of course, I am “suggesting the cause of the decline of the spotted owl was NOT due to unsustainable scale of the elimination of its preferred habitat (multilayered canopy and understory associated with old growth forest).” However, I am glad to see that you have differentiated between “preferred habitat” and “old-growth dependence” in this statement. There is a Huge Difference in these terms. I suppose I would “prefer” to live a life of wealth, luxury, and ease jetting between my sprawling estates in Oregon, Europe, and the Bahamas — but my existence is certainly not “dependent” on that preference. Same with hoot owls. They prefer to eat and breed regularly without the threat of being shot or eaten first; just like all other animals.

      The “management strategy” proposed by Jerry Franklin and his hand-picked host of self-declared “BAS” biologists to deal with all the federal acronyms you list has proven to be a colossal and public failure. These people were/are theoretical biologists, NOT experienced forest managers. Their failure is evident everywhere you look: millions of acres of needlessly degraded and destroyed forestlands; widespread rural unemployment; bankrupt businesses, communities, and counties; ruined lives and families; greatly increased risks, damages, and costs of wildfire; heightened costs of wooden homes and fuels; depleted federal and state treasuries; significantly reduced recreational opportunities; increasingly polluted air and waters — and, ultimately, a continued decline in spotted hoot owl numbers and numerous other food dependent wildlife populations.

      Quite the achievement. This is what happens when experienced foresters, resource managers, and forest scientists are replaced with theoretical biologists and opportunistic lawyers. As predicted.

      So, yes, the rest of your numbered responses may have been largely a “waste of time” on your part, as you suggest. Sorry for that.

      PS PNW forests have largely been “even-aged” for thousands of years. This is not a matter of logging history (as you infer) so much as genetics. Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, and many other widespread conifers “depend” on sunlight for their existence and respond aggressively to opportunities provided by fire, winds, landslides, and volcanic eruptions. In even-aged stands, for the most part. Why you declare that this condition is “unsustainable” I don’t know.

      PPS Who wrote the Wikipedia definition for “stewardship” that you cite? You? I’m definitely sticking with Webster on that one. Same with his definition for “ethics.”

  8. David, I’m glad you clarified that one agency was not the only source of the reduction in spotted owls.

    For example Appendix E in this document on page 71 shows maps of different ownership patterns in Washington State.

    If we agree that barred owls are part of the problem, then people who changed conditions such that barred owls migrated to the west must also be partially responsible.

    Also, note in this piece that the Southern California forests have endangered species and include another large bird, and have never had timber harvesting to speak of.

    So it is what it is.. we can have a interfaith group contrition ceremony (being sure to invite all who might have some responsibility- could be done virtually) so that we could symbolize our accounting for the past, but we need to focus our efforts on the best path to move forward together.

  9. In Merriam-Webster, stewardship is defined as “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially : the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care”. The KEY word being “management”, implying a hands-on manipulation. No one is saying a return to 1000 acre clearcuts is “stewardship”. Where was the precautionary principle when the Feds let dozens of owl nest stands burn in wildfires in Region 6?!? Where is the precautionary principle in letting lodgepoles choke the understory of majestic P. pine forests east of the Cascades (yes, home to spotted owls, as well)?? And, when can we consider the NWFP to be a “failed conservation strategy”?? It is clear to me that active management and “restoration forestry” is the key to moving forward into the future, instead of lamenting over the practices of the last millennium to block true stewardship. Take the blinders off, David!! Hey, why not blast modern medicine for all the deaths from the bloodletting era?!?!?

  10. Now, back to the plan and the article. How come ALL the blame is put upon the barred owl, when one of its main predators, the northern goshawk, is ignored?!? They share the exact same nesting habitat, and often will use the same nests on a rotating basis. At the very least, the goshawk represents a part of the cumulative impacts. Since both birds are listed, I tend to think that both birds are impacted by the barred owl, as well. Do we know if the barred owl will be taken down by a goshawk? Do we know if barred owls will nest in marginal nesting habitat (like the spotted owls)?? It sure seems like there are gaping holes in this plan that hasn’t been released yet. The complexity of these issues sure seems to be understated by those mentioned in the article. Will we continue to support the failed paradigm of the NWFP, and even extend it (somehow, at predictably, the same high human costs) to private lands?!? Will private landowners be offered generous monetary offers to allow their lands to be “experimented” on?!? Will preservationists demand eminent domain on private timbered lands, for “the greater public good”?? Finally, will the computer modeling criteria and the management plans be open for peer review, including foresters and planners?? Or will the Wildlife folks claim that it is their game and their ball and their rules??

    So very many questions, and so very little in definitive answers, just like the original NWFP.

  11. One important fact seems to be missing from this discussion. That is, the rate of spotted owl habitat in-growth far exceeds that rate of habitat loss due to fire. Several comments appear to have a misplaced and unfounded aversion to wildfire. This may be due to the fact that forests within the range of the spotted owl (unlike forests east of the Cascades and portions of the northern Rockies) are naturally dense and far less likely to experience frequent fire return intervals.

    Furthermore, efforts to remove fuels to reduce fire hazard will degrade owl habitat and, because the location and timing of wildfires cannot be predicted, logging to modify fire will be more widespread and destructive than fire itself, and logging will thus not increase the availability of owl habitat.

    • The fact that Tree makes no distinction between “foraging habitat”, and “nesting habitat” shows that his comments ring hollow. Owls can, and prefer varied conditions for successful hunting. They also prefer the safety of closed canopies for their nesting habitat, and such forests, these days, are unnaturally-choked with understory trees, putting the old growth at extreme risk to insects and wildfires. Sorry, Tree, but strategic thinning CAN help to deal with wildfires and public safety. Thinning can also accelerate the development of owl and goshawk preferred forests (which one would think that the ESA SHOULD support).


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