The forest-dwelling bird that has become known for causing grief in the region’s logging communities is again under Endangered Species Act review. This time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to increase protection for the Northern spotted owl.
Timber industry representatives worry the potential change could further restrict logging and actually take away from the decades-long efforts to restore the species.
Skagit County Forest Advisory Board Program Coordinator Kendra Smith said in an email to the Skagit Valley Herald she hopes the federal agency will “ensure that the science is fully vetted” before making a decision, rather than “having a knee jerk reaction” to the proposal.
The Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition in August 2012 asking the agency to list eight species, delist one species and reclassify the spotted owl as endangered, according to a notice published in the Federal Register on April 10. The owl was originally listed as threatened in 1990 after a significant amount of old-growth forest habitat was lost.
As a threatened species, the owl is considered in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future.
The American Forest Resource Council posted a fact sheet about the Northern spotted owl on April 16, in response to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement the week prior.
The document says the species’ listing in 1990 led to a 90 percent decline in federal timber harvests. It also asserts the Fish and Wildlife Service has caused detriment to rural economies that rely on timber harvest while failing to adequately restore the owl population.
Council President Tom Partin told the Skagit Valley Herald on Monday the organization thinks habitat is not the issue for the spotted owl, but that federal forest and wildlife managers need to look at the barred owl and the potential for fires. He worries that changing the owl’s ESA listing will take more land from timber operations without any benefit to the dwindling bird population.
“We’re very concerned, and here are the factors why we’re concerned: We went from 5 million acres of critical habitat in 2008, to now we have 9 million on federal land and I think 12 million overall … yet the spotted owl is still declining, and the reason it’s declining is not because of logging or land management,” Partin said.
Fish and Wildlife officials agree that the largest threat to the spotted owl is the barred owl. The barred owl is larger and more aggressive, and has moved across the continent in recent years, competing with the threatened spotted owl.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is testing whether killing barred owls in areas in Oregon, Washington and California will allow spotted owls to reclaim their habitat.
The agency started with a test area in California. Between October 2013 and March 2014, 71 barred owls were removed, according to agency records. The effort could expand to central Washington and parts of Oregon this fall.
“There are some positive effects to spotted owl numbers (in the California test area),” Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Brent Lawrence said. “We’re seeing some good preliminary results from the experimental barred owl removal.”
Washington Forest Protection Association spokeswoman Cindy Mitchell said efforts to remove the barred owl should be allowed to continue without interference.
“In northern California where they’ve been doing that, the spotted owl seems to come right back. So to me, uplisting the spotted owl is way premature and should follow the conservation measures,” she said. “The barred owl is one of the top threats identified for the spotted owl right now, and fire. When the federal government is assessing those things, why would you try and talk about the spotted owls’ status? … It just throws another wrench in the system.”
The proposal is a distraction from restoring the owl’s population, Mitchell said, noting that the owl is already heavily guarded in private, tribal, state and federal conservation areas.
“When a species goes from threatened to endangered, it triggers even more regulation,” Mitchell said. She contends more restrictions will not help.
Since receiving the petition, the Fish and Wildlife Service found the species did not warrant an emergency “uplisting” and determined it would go through the standard review process.
After completing a 90-day review, the agency announced there is “substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned actions may be warranted.”
The April 10 announcement marks the start of a review period during which the agency will accept scientific, commercial and other information from outside sources. The comment period closes June 9.
Lawrence said the agency plans to issue 12-month findings on the petition in about September 2017. A substantial 90-day finding does not mean the 12-month review will result in agreement with the petition.
For the Northern spotted owl, the agency is looking for information that could pinpoint what is causing the species’ continued decline, such as the West Nile virus, competition with barred owls, or climate change.
Fish and Wildlife representatives say not much would change under the potential uplisting, but some on the industry side are wary of the possibility.
Smith of the Skagit County Forest Advisory Board said an upgraded listing could have “grave impacts to our communities.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lawrence said current practices, such as monitoring “incidental take” of the birds, would continue under the potential uplisting, and the change would have minor regulatory changes. The 90-day finding is also just one step between acknowledging the 2012 petition and making a final decision, he said.
The Associated Press reported that while the change would be largely symbolic, the petitioning party — the Environmental Protection Information Center, of Arcata, California — hopes to see federal agencies more aggressively protect old-growth forest habitat and reduce the threat from the barred owl.