Spotted owl is on a dangerous decline
State to review areas of protection put in place 10 years ago.
Tuesday, August 9, 2005
In Washington, the plan to save the spotted owl is not working.
The little-seen bird that launched the gut-wrenching timber wars of the early 1990s is declining in this state at nearly twice the rate predicted by federal scientists. And the pace at which the bird is spiraling toward extinction is quickening, researchers say. Some of the steepest declines are in the Cascades just east of Seattle.
Two-thirds of the owl nesting sites known in Washington a dec-ade ago have been abandoned, according to state researchers. Some of those forests on private land already have been cut, meaning it will be many decades before those lands shelter spotted owls again -- if ever.
Today and Wednesday, the nearly decade-old rules that allowed such logging on private land are being scrutinized by the state board that originally adopted them, the Washington Forest Practices Board.
Spotted owls don't usually build nests, instead laying their eggs in the broken tops or "chimneys" of extremely large, old trees. But the forests that surround such a nest, loaded with massive trees, are worth a lot to timber companies.
Going into what could be a nasty clash with the logging industry, environmentalists have on their side two recently completed state studies documenting the owls' plight.
"The spotted owl population in Washington is experiencing a prolonged and accelerating decline," Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife researchers Joseph Buchanan and Paula Swedeen wrote in a report released last week. "This decline has been well documented."
But, stung by the public-relations shellacking conservationists took in the '90s by residents who neither knew nor cared much about the owls, green groups are going easy on the anti-timber rhetoric.
"The spotted owl is maybe an unfortunate icon, but this is not just about an owl. It's about how do we make sure we have the spotted owl and the (other) wildlife in our state and how do we make sure our industries are still in business," said Nina Carter, executive director of Audubon Washington. "We have an open mind and we're trying to work with and learn how the industries work."
Lurking in the background, though, is a 2003 threat by the Seattle and Kittitas County Audubon chapters to sue the state under the Endangered Species Act. And on Friday the two groups fired another shot over the bow, formally notifying the federal government of their intent to sue unless the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts together a plan to rebuild owl populations.
Washington's spotted owls have plummeted at an estimated rate of 7 percent a year for the last 15 years, compared with between 2 percent and 3 percent annually in Oregon and California.
Even the timber industry says those numbers are worrisome. But that doesn't necessarily mean big forestry companies are willing to protect more trees.
"I don't know what all the solutions are because I think we're still at the information-gathering stage," said Cindy Mitchell of the Washington Forest Protection Association, which represents large timber companies. "We're 10 years into a 50-or-more-year plan. So I don't know what people are going to think about whether this is still a good strategy."
The timber industry and others point out that scientists have identified a series of new or newly discovered threats to the owl.
A chief new threat is the invasion of the Northwest by the barred owl, which flew in during the past few decades from Canada, having migrated from the East. The barred owl is thought to be an aggressive competitor to the spotted owl, although scientists still are sorting out that relationship.
Barred owls -- which, ironically, are dwindling toward extinction where they came from back East -- also have been known to kill and to mate with spotted owls. Scientists are zeroing in on the barred owl as a prime suspect in killing off the spotted owl.
"It's all hypotheses at this point," said Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, a longtime owl researcher. "The barred owl is implicated, but no one has documented what has happened."
Other emerging threats to the spotted owl include the West Nile virus, which is known to kill birds, and the increasing likelihood of fires wiping out huge chunks of overgrown forest.
The action that begins today at the Forest Practices Board's meeting in Olympia is only the latest chapter in a saga of timber wars that dates to the 1980s and drew national attention to the owl and the Northwest's old-growth forests.
Those struggles supposedly were to end with the 1994 adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan. The basic idea was that land in federal forests -- the focus of the timber wars -- would be the main places that spotted owls would be saved. Under the plan, logging in national forests was reduced by about 80 percent.
That meant the private lands at issue this week in Olympia were relatively less important. Their role was to fill in the gaps in places where owls needed older forests with big trees, but where the federal government had no national parks or forests.
The state went on to establish 13 "special emphasis areas" for the owls in those areas, making it more difficult for timber companies to cut close to spotted owl nests.
But two areas recommended for protection by a state science panel, on the north Olympic Peninsula and southwest Washington, were eliminated by the Forest Practices Board. The board also reduced the size of three other areas.
And even inside the "special emphasis areas," the plan fizzled. Landowners were expected to come forward with plans to preserve owls, but only one 540-acre plan has ever been approved. The areas cover 1.5 million acres.
Instead, the main controls on logging came inside large circles drawn around known spotted-owl nests, and allowing no more than 60 percent of the acreage inside to be cut.
But protecting parts of these "owl circles" just didn't work. Owls hunt and travel in irregular-shaped areas, depending on where the forest is most inviting. This system allows lots of owl habitat to be cut.
The circle system "provides a certain amount of protection, but it is not likely adequate in many cases," particularly where small, isolated populations are struggling to survive, such as on the Olympic Peninsula and southwest Washington, state scientists reported last week.
So-called habitat conservation plans don't appear to be conserving the owls very well, either.
According to a state analysis released last week, nearly half the partially protected owl circles are inside the boundaries of the much-ballyhooed plans, which grant companies a license to kill or harm protected species in exchange for taking specific steps to help them in some other way.
And the promise that Weyerhaeuser Co. would complete such a habitat conservation plan for its extensive holdings in southwest Washington was cited as a reason the state didn't establish a special emphasis area there for the spotted owl. Weyerhaeuser's promise never came to pass. The Federal Way-based timber giant was unable to work out terms acceptable to the state and federal governments.
Although the state protections were envisioned as a supplement to federal efforts to preserve the bird, environmentalists point out that area under the state forest board's control represents about 40 percent of the bird's historic range. They hope to see action this week.
"We've been trying to approach this as deliberately and constructively as possible," said Heath Packard of Audubon Washington. "There's a consensus from the board that doing nothing is not an option."