Printer Friendly

The bird of contention.

For nearly 20 years now, the northern spotted owl has been caught in a love-hate relationship. Environmentalists love this quiet forest bird; those involved in logging old-growth hate it.

Back in the 1960s, when biologists first began studying the northern spotted owl, they were concerned with one thing--just how many owls were out there. But then the researchers began trying to determine what constitutes suitable owl habitat, and that's where old-growth forests came in. And the real trouble began.

Initial findings led the scientists to conclude that old-growth is the only place where owls can survive. The multilayered canopy found in an old-growth forest protects the owls from predators and excessive heat. Understory trees provide a multitude of perches near the ground where the birds forage. Standing and down snags support populations of the prey species the owl feeds on, as well as providing the owls' nesting sites.

The spotted owl is indeed well adapted to this type of habitat, as are other species. Just how many other animals are dependent on old-growth, we don't know. But the owl for one is thought to be an indicator species, meaning that its well-being gives us an indication of the health of the old-growth forest.

As an indicator species, the northern spotted owl serves a function reminiscent of the reason coal miners in the 1800s carried canaries in cages into the mine shafts--to warn of impure air. When the canary breathed its last, the men knew that time had just about run out for them as well. Similarly, if the owl is in trouble, so is its habitat--and the time has come to do something fast.

William Radtkey, the Bureau of Land Management's program manager for endangered species, says procrastination and political pressures have pushed old-growth forests to the edge. The owl is a symptom indicating the time has come to act. "We have a canary and a rock. When the canary dies, we throw the rock through the window."

Not everyone agrees that the owl is an indicator species. Many in the timber industry lump it with the snail darter, the diminutive and controversial fish whose endangered status was invoked (unsuccessfully) to block construction of a dam in Tennessee back in the 1970s.

But environmentalists see the owl as more than a threatened species like the snail darter, as more than a means-to-an-end to put a stop to logging of old-growth. Instead, for them the spotted owl is a metaphor symbolizing the end of an important kind of ecosystem.

Studies by Eric Forsman, a biologist formerly with the Oregon State Cooperative Research Unit, and Gordon Gould, of the California Department of Fish and Game, signaled the danger as early as 1972. Yet at that time the immense problems surfacing were either underestimated or just ignored. The findings of Forsman and Gould indicating that the owl was in trouble were broadcast to several agencies including the Oregon Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Still, timber sales proceeded as usual, and the owl's habitat continued to disappear.

Listing was first proposed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, but not until June of 1990--17 years later-did the owl receive federal protection.

By the beginning of this decade, only about 10 percent of the great conifer forests that once blanketed the Pacific Northwest remained. It seemed the time of reckoning had come. In the fall of 1989, the heads of the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service signed an agreement to form the Interagency Scientific Committee (ISC). The team's task was "to develop a scientifically credible conservation strategy for the northern spotted owl in the U. S.

At that point in time, old-growth was being removed at the rate of 2 percent a year. "When you remove at this rate," says Jack Ward Thomas, chairman of the ISC, "in 50 years you're down to zip."

The ISC's strategy, better known as the "Thomas plan," does not lay out simple solutions, for there are none. Whether the ISC plan will prove adequate remains to be seen. Highly qualified biologists have given it their endorsement; others say it's too optimistic and risky. But Thomas replies, "I haven't seen a better one; in fact, I haven't seen another one. "

The centerpieces of the Thomas plan are Habitat Conservation Areas (HCAs)-blocks of suitable owl habitat. HCAs are not necessarily areas that now contain owls, but they are forests that are capable of supporting owl populations. The short-term goal of the Thomas plan is protection of significant amounts of remaining superior habitat. Under this plan, most logging operations within HCAs would cease.

In the long term? It is hoped that suitable habitat can be produced within managed forests and make the HCAs unnecessary. But Thomas points out, "There's no quick fix. "

Why the 17-year failure on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service to comply with the Endangered Species Act? Why a similar lapse on the part of the U.S. Forest Service? Environmentalists accuse the forestry agency of failing to adhere to the rules of the National Forest Management Act. Deadlines for adoption of formal plans in the national forests to ensure the owl's viability were set-and missed.

In a lawsuit filed by the Seattle Audubon Society, the reasons behind these ongoing violations surfaced. Testifying at a hearing, biologist Eric Forsman stated, "There was a considerable amount of political pressure to create a plan which had a very low probability of success and which had a minimum impact on timber harvest."

At the trial the presiding Judge, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer of Seattle, ruled that the decisions were not made by the biologists and foresters working at the agency level, but instead by higher authorities in the government's executive branch.

On May 23 of this year, Judge Dwyer issued an injunction stopping all new timber sales in spotted-owl habitat on all national forests of the Pacific Northwest. Weighing information from all sides, he stated that further delays are neither "necessary nor tolerable." However, timber sales--logging operations--already in process are not affected by the decision.

The original suit stated that continued logging would push spotted-owl populations beyond recovery. As a result of the injunction, logging levels in FY 1991 and FY92 will be reduced by about one billion board-feet (bf) and 1.25 billion bf respectively.

Judge Dwyer further mandated that the clock for producing a formal conservation plan and Environmental Impact Statement began ticking April 1 and will stop March 5, 1992. So the Forest Service has about six months left at this point.

In considering his ruling, the judge heard a multitude of opinions from all sides--conservationists, Forest Service personnel, and industry. "It was kind of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears," says Jack Thomas. "Some porridge is too hot, some's too cold, and some's just right." One would hope a "just right" decision awaits-one guided by fact, not opinion or politics.

Decreasing the flow of timber off federal lands will increase the demand on private lands. Tom Nelson, forester for Sierra Pacific Industries, a timber company based in Redding, California, says Dwyer's decision could have considerable impact on Sierra Pacific's holdings. The bulk of the company's property-50 to. 70 percent-lies in a checkerboard pattern with Forest Service lands.

Other timber companies are caught in similar situations, with access to their lands being over Forest Service roads. The companies must obtain use permits prior to hauling. Richard Dragseth of Fruit Growers Timber Company claims that some road permits are facing delays of six months.

All along, court orders have prodded the decision-making on the owl. On April 26 of this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service released a proposal designating 11.6 million acres of northern California, Oregon, and Washington as critical habitat based on the ISC strategy. Jack Thomas says the Fish and Wildlife proposal "expands HCAs to give a little more cushion. "

The standard for critical habitat, according to Phil Detrich, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, is no adverse modifications by federal actions. Admitting this is a broad criterion, he says that it will have to be tailored to individual areas. Although some timber harvest may still be allowed, restrictions will be tight. Following a public comment and review period, a final decision on this proposal probably won't come until some time in December.

With rulings like that of Judge Dwyer, jobs are on the line throughout the spotted owl's range. According to Jim Craine of the California Forestry Association, approximately 9,000 jobs are directly at risk with Dwyer's injunction against cutting a billion board-feet, and when the multiplier effect is taken into account, the number goes up considerably.

Environmentalists counter that these jobs are doomed anyway. Once the old-growth is gone for good, that will be the end of the sawmills and the jobs in the mills. Even now, job losses are occurring due to modernization, competition, and change in product demand. Small wonder whole towns are traumatized, and logging folks are rallying in the streets.

The range of the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) extends across regions of western Oregon, Washington, and northern California. The bird's foraging areas increase in size the farther north you go within this region and reflect varying types of vegetation. In northern California, where stands of hardwoods such as tan, black, and live oaks are interspersed with coniferous forests, the owls find large populations of small mammals-most commonly woodrats -to feed on and thus require smaller acreage in which to forage. Farther north, the owls' prey base-flying squirrels-is smaller, so the birds require more land.

What about the future of old-growth timber harvests? "It's conceivable," says Fish and Wildlife's Detrich, "that in the future harvest will be allowed in HCAs. " What we need, some resource managers feel, is a middle ground-a way to extract lumber and still provide for the needs of the owl. Indications are that we can, according to some members of the scientific community.

"As a scientist, I think there's a distinct probability that we can do it," says the ISC's Jack Thomas, when asked about managing stands for owls as well as timber. However, he stands firm in saying there are many unknowns. "Mostly what we're doing now is running around looking for owls outside of old-growth in younger stands and trying to see what the circumstances are." It is hoped that by studying conditions in second-growth stands where owls are being found, we can produce similar second-growth habitat and thus stable populations.

It is commonly accepted among researchers that spotted owls do occur in second-growth, managed stands under certain conditions, but a cautious attitude prevails. The signs are positive, but scientists prefer long-term studies and irrefutable evidence. In northern California alone, 350 pairs have been found in second-growth forests, and this count is thought to be conservative.

Several California timber companies, including Sierra Pacific Industries, Fruit Growers Timber Company, Simpson Timber Company, and Pacific Lumber Company, all have owls in managed stands, and the consensus is that the owls will continue to survive in those stands.

Steve Self, biologist for Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), says the birds have been found throughout SPI's properties. Studies have focused on nesting sites, prey base, and foraging habitat. Cautious and careful forestry on Sierra Pacific's lands is intended to ensure that sufficient habitat remains after any management activity such as harvesting, planting, or brush removal.

SPI designed a plan to protect owls from harm by timber operations. Self says a few modifications were made to the plan after it was reviewed by Fish and Wildlife. One aspect of the plan, for example, restricted harvest within 18 acres of an owl nest during nesting season. "Fish and Wildlife was a little uncomfortable with any harvesting and felt that in the long run the owls might be affected," he says. Fish and Wildlife said we don't have enough data, and they're right, we don't have long-term information on this kind of stuff . " So compromises were made.

Nesting studies over the past two years have identified 12 pairs and five male owls on second-growth lands belonging to Fruit Growers Timber Company in Humboldt County. Speaking of managing stands for owls, biologist Jeff Webster says, "There's no doubt in my mind-it can be done. "

He adds, "Instead of cutting whole drainages, we're cutting bits and pieces so the owls can move around." On one 20,000-acre block logged at the turn of the century, the company has owls on every drainage. Selective harvest has been the method on this land. "We're out there trying to find out what we did by accident so we can do it on purpose," says Webster.

Lowell Diller with Simpson Timber Company in Arcata, California, says that densities of owls on Simpson's second-growth lands are high. "We're looking at numbers close to one pair per 1,000 acres," he says. Most of the owls are found nesting in stands 45 to 80 years old.

Out of 380,000 acres, approximately 2 percent of the company's land is old- growth redwood forest, and Diller says no significant numbers of owls are found on that acreage. Old-growth redwood forests aren't highly productive of small mammals, and perches are hundreds of feet in the air, proving that even though a forest is old-growth, it isn't necessarily suitable owl habitat. High densities of owls in redwoods, he contends, are found only outside the true redwood belt where there is a mixture of Douglas-fir and hardwoods.

Diller says the Simpson lands where the owl is being found consist of highly fragmented patches of second-growth, where high densities of a favorite prey -woodrats-are found. Prey numbers tend to increase in younger clear-cut areas at the brush and pole stages, but Diller adds that "when you go too far with fragmentation, then of course the populations start going downhill again. "

Fragmentation normally results in the owls expending more energy while foraging, and it decreases available nesting and roosting sites. Also, spotted owls are more susceptible to predation by barred owls when crossing open, clear-cut areas.

Diller points out, however, that in Oregon and Washington the spotted owl's primary prey is the flying squirrel, which lives in mature stands. "So when you cut there," he says, "it's kind of a double whammy." Fragmentation not only adversely affects the prey but also directly diminishes the owl's habitat.

Some contend that with more owls cropping up in younger, managed stands, the time has come to look at silvicultural methods used on these lands and turn accidental methods into planned ones. "The progress of science comes in little steps," says Fish and Wildlife's Phil Detrich. "Slowly we're putting the information together."

Children build houses from decks of cards, placing each one with delicate precision, always trying for just one more while holding their breath against disaster. They never know until the whole thing collapses just which card will be the last. When we speak of an old-growth ecosystem, of owls and other indicator species like martens, fishers, flying squirrels, and marbled murrelets, do we know exactly how it all works? How will we know when we've laid down our last card?

"I think there are lessons here," says Detrich. "Whether we learn them or not is up to us. "


Just now beginning to attract attention are two more species said to be old-growth dependent, the Pacific fisher (Martes pennanti pacifica) and the American marten (Martes americana), Both mammals are members of the weasel family. The fisher weighs in at seven to 12 pounds; the marten is about the size of a small house cat.

Fishers inhabit the conifer-dominated forests of the Pacific Northwest. Over-harvest of the forests, as well as extensive trapping in the late 19th century, caused fisher populations to decline.

In June of 1990, Fish and Wildlife received a petition to list the fisher as endangered in California, oregon, and Washington. The fisher's preference for large, contiguous blocks of mature and old-growth forest was cited, and reduction in its habitat was well documented. However, relatively little credible information is available on the fisher's habitat needs, population trends, or demographic parameters in the Pacific states.

Mike Chappel, forest biologist on the Tahoe National Forest, offers three possible explanations for the small number of fishers: There were never many to begin with; trapping by early settlers reduced the populations; or mistakes were made in habitat management.

Marten populations, according to Chappel, are fairly abundant, unlike the fisher. -We're just gearing up," says Chappel, for studies on both animals. Even at this stage of the game, preliminary estimates are being made as to how future management for these two species will affect timber output on national forests. -- Carrie CASEY
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:includes related articles; northern spotted owl
Author:Langguth, Paula E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Paying the price for old-growth.
Next Article:When the bullwhacker reigned supreme.

Related Articles
A hoot for the future; the spotted owl may answer a loaded question: is sustainable management possible in Northwest forests?
Updating the old-growth wars.
The politics of old-growth.
Paying the price for old-growth.
Owls vs. jobs: sorting out the impacts.
Get active!
New plan could trigger renewed logging.
Proposal would ease some timber restrictions.
More flak for spotted owl. (Clippings).

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters