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Press Release: US Fish & Wildlife Service Routinely Permits Killing and Harassing of Northern Spotted Owls in Burned Forests, Endangering Owl Recovery

October 24, 2022

For Immediate Release – October 24, 2022

US Fish & Wildlife Service Routinely Permits Killing and Harassing of Northern Spotted Owls in Burned Forests, Endangering Owl Recovery

Contacts:
Dr. Monica L. Bond (Wild Nature Institute, monica@wildnatureinstitute.org, 415-498-0667)
Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala (Wild Heritage, a Project of Earth Island Institute, dominick@wild-heritage.org; 541-621-7223)

Talent, Oregon: The Northern Spotted Owl is the quintessential canary in the coal-mine for older forest ecosystems. This medium-size nocturnal bird of prey was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1992 because of widespread logging of its old-growth forest habitat shared by hundreds of species. The owl is also uniquely adapted to hunt and nest in the complex mixture of severely burned forests and unburned old-growth forest patches typically found in large wildfires that occur in dry, fire-adapted forests within the owls’ range. A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Forests documents the massive extent of logging in Spotted Owl territories that have burned, indicating that the owl will only be able to persist if the fire-dependent forests where it lives are protected from logging.

Nesting spotted owls in severely burned forest in northern California (photo credit: Maya Khosla)

Scientists combed through hundreds of Spotted Owl survey data forms provided by the US Forest Service for national forests in northern California to Washington where severe fire burned through owl territories. They determined just how many of the burned owl territories were logged before and after wildfires, along with those where Barred Owls were also present, to sort out what might be driving Spotted Owl nest site abandonment that federal agencies blame on wildfires. The larger, more aggressive and invasive Barred Owls compete with Spotted Owls for the same nest sites, which along with habitat destruction from logging is contributing to range-wide declines. What this study found calls into question a common practice by the US Fish & Wildlife Service to routinely issue “incidental take permits” under the Endangered Species Act that allow the US Forest Service to harass and kill owls during logging operations based on the assumption that burned sites are no longer Spotted Owl habitat and logging is less detrimental to owl survival then fires.

According to lead owl researcher, Dr. Monica Bond of the Wild Nature Institute, “widespread logging is occurring before and after wildfires in Spotted Owl territories that is largely ignored by the main agency responsible for the recovery of the owl.” Bond added, “the US Fish & Wildlife Service has approved owl “incidental take” permits that have allowed the Forest Service to repeatedly log substantial portions of Spotted Owl territories which, rather than wildfire per se, is the most likely culprit preventing recovery of the species.”

The main findings of the study are: 

  • Of the 105 severely burned Spotted Owl territories located on the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest (WA), Deschutes and Umpqua National Forests (OR), and Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests (CA), the vast majority (87%) had evidence of logging (clearcuts, thinning, fuels reduction) before or after wildfires, while only 12% had no logging or Barred Owls during the 18-year study period. 
  • Breaking this down further, the majority (n = 63, 60%) of Spotted Owl territories were logged both before and after fire, followed by those logged only after fire (n = 15, 14%) and sites logged only before fire (n = 13, 12%). 
  • Spotted Owl burned territories were logged multiple times (average of ~5 logging entries, some with upwards of 14 entries) with clearcuts as large as 432 acres approved in Spotted Owl nesting territories. 
  • Further, 22% of severely burned Spotted Owl territories had both Barred Owls and logging, indicating the rarity of Spotted Owl territories subjected to severe fire alone without the compounding stressors of multiple logging entries and invasive Barred Owls. 

Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, Chief Scientist of Wild Heritage and co-author on the study noted, “the US Fish & Wildlife Service issues incidental take permits to kill and harass Spotted Owls to the Forest Service like it was handing out candy at Halloween.” DellaSala served on the Northern Spotted Owl recovery team in 2006-2008 and has been asking both agencies to take a hard look at the impacts of logging in owl territories before issuing take permits or assuming that burned sites are no longer owl habitat. Based on other studies, Barred Owls seem to do well in logged landscapes while Spotted Owls do not, and preserving Spotted Owl habitat at the territory scale is necessary for Spotted Owls to withstand Barred Owl invasions. 

According to the study, US Fish & Wildlife Service granted incidental take permits for the Forest Service to kill and/or harass 74 adult and 12–29 juvenile spotted owls in postfire “salvage” logging operations on the Klamath National Forest (CA) alone because it was assumed the sites were no longer Spotted Owl habitat. The recovery plan for the Spotted Owl also allows for widespread commercial logging in critical habitat before fire for “fuels reduction” that routinely involves logging large fire-resistant trees and reducing canopy cover below what’s needed for nesting and roosting. Studies show that such logging would remove far more habitat than fires. 

Bond noted, “This is promising news, because we can abstain from logging and we can eliminate Barred Owls – those two measures alone can help reverse the Spotted Owl’s extinction trajectory.” 

DellaSala added “The Northern Spotted Owl is nature’s way of telling us that we have pushed our ecosystems beyond limits and in doing so are jeopardizing clean water, climate regulation, and countless benefits for fish and wildlife also at risk to logging in owl habitat.” 

The full study appeared in a special feature on the global extinction crisis – https://www.mdpi.com/1999-4907/13/10/1730 

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