If it wasn't for bad luck
, these days the northern spotted owl
wouldn't have no luck at all. Seventeen years after the owl was listed as a threatened species, 13 years after the federal government adopted the Northwest Forest Plan
to protect it - along with marbled murrelets, wild salmon, and hundreds of other old-growth-associated plants and critters – the trend lines all point down. Spotted owl population numbers are plummeting; larger, more aggressive barred owls are muscling into spotted owl territory; new plagues threaten the birds' long-term survival; owl habitat is still disappearing; and the Bush administration is still trying to pave the way for more logging in owl habitat.
Nobody expected all this. The Clinton administration created the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 to protect the owl and stop the owl wars. Three years before, U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer had permanently enjoined federal timber sales in western Washington and Oregon, noting "a deliberate and systematic refusal by the Forest Service ... to comply with the laws protecting wildlife." Virtually no one was entirely happy with these decisions. The forest products industry complained that the plan went too far, environmentalists that it didn't go far enough. But most people assumed it would go a long way toward stopping the owl's decline and ending the constant round of lawsuits and injunctions and political posturing.
It certainly hasn't stopped or even slowed the owl's decline. Scientists expected the number of northern spotted owls to keep dropping for years after the Forest Plan went into effect. Even assuming that the plan was adequate - an assumption many environmental groups weren't willing to make - it couldn't immediately reverse the effects of the logging binge that swept the national forests in the 1970s and 1980s. The Forest Plan envisioned good habitat developing on some of the designated reserve land in 80 to 100 years, which of course hasn't happened yet.
But no one expected the owl population to crash as rapidly as it has. "Populations of northern spotted owls continue to decline across the range of the species," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in a status review three years ago
(612K PDF), "with the most severe declines occurring in the northern portion of the range (Washington and British Columbia)." The Forest Plan scientists saw a decline of 1 percent a year as the worst case. Across the owl's full range, the actual rate has been more like 3.7 percent. In Washington, it has been 7.3 percent - and in parts of Washington, it has been much higher than that.
The status review
pointed to competition from the barred owl as one explanation for the declines. Those who oppose restrictions on logging promptly cited this as evidence that the logging industry in the Northwest had been severely curtailed because of bad science – in effect the culprit had been another owl, not the loss of old growth habitat. But the status review also pointed to the lingering effects of past habitat loss as another cause. It was not just past habitat loss, either, since wildfires and insects continued to destroy forests after 1994, and so did chain saws. The plan doesn't limit logging on state or private land, and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals observed in 2004 that in the decade since the plan went into effect, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had authorized the "incidental take" of 1,000 northern spotted owls and OK'd logging of more than 82,000 acres of owl habitat.
The review also suggested that in the future, the owl and its habitat might fall victim to West Nile virus and Sudden Oak Death.
West Nile virus, which appeared in New York eight years ago and has since spread to virtually every state in the Lower 48, may threaten the owls directly. The virus normally shuttles back and forth between birds and mosquitoes, which can also spread it to humans, horses, and other mammals. When the virus appeared in New York, it caused encephalitis in both people and horses. It also killed a lot of crows. Corvids are clearly vulnerable to West Nile. But the virus needs birds as hosts, and it doesn't often kill them. However, it wouldn't have to kill a lot of owls to push the population a lot closer to the brink.
Sudden Oak Death, a plant disease that appeared in California in the mid-1990s, has marched up the coast into Southern Oregon and has been found in Washington. It causes cankers on the trunks of oak trees, which are likely to die. It damages the twigs and foliage of other species, including coast redwood and Douglas fir, which are not likely to die. However, no one really knows how it would affect Northwestern forests, and given the current state of the spotted owl, even a damaged forest might lower its chances of survival.
No one anticipated
West Nile virus or Sudden Oak Death in 1994. No one anticipated barred owls becoming a problem, either. Barred owls are native to the eastern U.S. Historically, the vast treeless plains kept them bottled up there. They weren't much more likely to fly west across the plains than they were to fly east across the Atlantic Ocean. But as people settled the plains, they planted trees on farms, in parks, along city streets. Eventually, the tree planters created islands of habitat that enabled barred owls to gradually make their way across the plains. The owls evidently looped up through the Canadian prairie, into British Columbia, and then down into Washington. No one knows why they have arrived when they did, but they are bad news for the spotted owls, their prey.
The barred owl makes it easy to deflect public attention from the ongoing need to preserve habitat, as recent tussles over the science have made plain. The northern spotted owl was listed in 1990, and a draft recovery plan came out in 1992. A final plan never materialized, because the Interior Department assumed the Forest Plan would accomplish the same thing. Last May, however, the Fish and Wildlife Service convened a team to produce a recovery plan and gave it just four months to do the work. The tight schedule did not give the recovery team enough time to create a new computer model. Instead, the team relied on the model created in the early 1990s - before the recent population crash, before the barred owl, before the past 15 years of additional habitat destruction.
The planners made the best of what they had. They came up with a draft plan by the September 2006 deadline. It called for preserving some 7 million acres of habitat in long-term reserves that correspond basically to the "late-successional reserves" established by the Forest Plan. But the recovery team was soon informed, in a conference call from Washington, D.C., that an oversight committee composed of high-ranking Department of Agriculture and Interior officials had decided that the draft wouldn't do. The oversight committee wanted a second option, which was duly incorporated into the draft that the Fish and Wildlife Service issued late last month
(6.3 MB PDF). Option two gives forest managers more flexibility - which the administration demanded – and doesn't specify the outlines or locations of habitat reserves.
On April 30
, Robert McClure reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
that a "high-level team of Bush administration appointees in Washington, D.C. ... ordered changes in a plan produced by scientists and other experts to save the Pacific Northwest's spotted owl." The P-I
later editorialized that in "the latest example of their lapdog eagerness to ignore science and serve corporate interests, Bush administration officials have distorted critical recommendations on spotted owl protection."
The government acknowledged in a press release that a recovery plan with two options was unprecedented. It also suggested that barred owls had become the only real problem, which is not what the recovery team members concluded. Actually, the recovery team saw three big problems, of which the barred owl invasion was only one, and was past, and ongoing habitat loss were the other two factors. But that broader analysis of the causes of the decline in spotted owls wasn't the message that the oversight committee wanted to convey.
One perspective on what may have happened next came in May 9 testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, when one of the recovery team members, Dominick DellaSala of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy, noted that on Oct. 18, "we received notice from the USFWS to 'de-link the owl plan from the Northwest Forest Plan' to provide the Forest Service and BLM with more 'flexibility.'" Exactly one week later, a "memo directed the recovery team to 'indicate [the barred owl] was [the] only threat given priority number 1 ... and summarize the habitat threats discussion into less than a page.'"
However brief the summary, habitat still counts. Since the spotted owl faces serious new threats, one can argue that if the Forest Plan hadn't protected some habitat, the owls might well have already passed the point of no return, and that secure habitat counts even more now than it did in 1994.
But critics expect
a proposal to slash the number of acres designated as critical habitat for the owl. In 1992, the Fish and Wildlife Service identified nearly 7 million acres as critical habitat. Chances are, the government will propose a new designation that covers only a small fraction of that acreage.
The recent FWS proposal to revise its critical habitat designation for the threatened marbled murrelet - the little sea bird that nests high up in coastal old growth forests – may have set a precedent. In 1996, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated 3.9 million acres as critical habitat for the murrelet. Last fall, the FWS proposed reducing the acreage by 95 percent. The current proposal would exclude any land covered by other management regimes - whether or not it is actually protected for murrelets.
All this fits
into the plan disclosed in 2003 when Earthjustice used the Freedom of Information Act to get memos that indicated how the forest products industry wanted the Bush administration to modify environmental rules so that industry could cut 1.1 billion board feet a year in Northwest forests. Reducing habitat protection for the owl and murrelet were keys. Others included eliminating old growth protection on BLM land in southern Oregon and northern California; dumping the Forest Plan's aquatic strategy, designed to protect salmon; and getting rid of the requirement to "survey and manage" for the survival of fungi, invertebrates, and other species protected by the Forest Plan.
Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center wrote in January's King County Bar Journal
about "the return of the spotted owl" as a hot legal issue once again, noting the widespread destruction of habitat on private and state land. He's probably right. The critical habitat proposal is due out next month. The final recovery plan is due next spring, just in time for the presidential election campaign.