A Tale of Two Owls: The Real Threat to the Northern Spotted Owl

Originally appeared in The Register-Guard. Shared with permission.

Timber harvests on federal forests dropped dramatically after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. Once-flourishing Oregon communities, such as Oakridge and Gilchrist, fell into catastrophic economic decline. Some have found niches to fill, but many are still far from their former glory.

Regrettably, policies intended to save the NSO haven’t worked because of a more sinister enemy of the bird hiding in plain sight and severe wildfires burning habitat.

FWS now says it has “further research and analysis to determine that the aggressive and invasive barred owl is the primary threat to the northern spotted owl."

Thankfully, FWS finalized a new rule on Jan. 15 that allows science to drive active forest management and economic growth once again. It provides more than 6 million acres of federal lands as “critical habitat” and recognizes the barred owl — not logging — as the greatest threat to the NSO.

“If we are going to have any chance at recovering the NSO, we must improve the health and resiliency of our federal forests through science-based active management,” American Forest Resource Council President Travis Joseph stated in a press release.

By allowing more thinning on lands where the owl is not present, the new rule aligns with FWS’s NSO recovery plan, which acknowledges that active forest management is radically important to help mitigate additional losses of habitat from wildfire and other threats to the owl. 

Recent statistics illustrate the impacts of catastrophic wildfire on NSO habitat. Oregon’s 2020 wildfires burned more than 560 square miles of suitable nesting and roosting spotted owl habitat. Of that, over 300 square miles are no longer considered viable for the owl.

Even before FWS formally changed the critical habitat rule, collaborative groups including FWS staff in Oregon have known that restoration at a much faster pace and larger scale is critical on federal lands in order to reduce threats from wildfire, including those incurred by the NSO. 

In Southern Oregon, the Rogue Basin Cohesive Strategy was developed by the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative, FWS, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry and The Nature Conservancy. When considering the needs of the landscape and the NSO, all parties acknowledged that relative habitat suitability should be considered first, but “[t]hen, the Strategy prioritizes active management” recognizing that site-specific analysis is needed to make the best decisions on the ground.

This strategy is an example of how a diverse set of stakeholders can come together to identify the needs of active management while considering the habitat needs of the NSO.

The new rule from FWS aligns NSO critical habitat with federal law and modern forest science. It will help restoration activities occur at the pace and scale needed to address threats to the NSO and will support jobs and economic recovery throughout rural Western Oregon.

Amanda Astor is forest policy manager at Associated Oregon Loggers and a monthly contributor to The Register-Guard. She holds degrees in forest management, forest biology, and forest carbon: science, policy and management. She advocates for sustainable, economic and operationally feasible federal forest management.



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