1.5 pounds. 18 inches. That’s all it took to destroy the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest and demolish over 18,000 jobs. An owl. Small in size, light in weight, but with the ability to cause thousands of unemployed families and the loss of millions of dollars. The day the spotted owl was placed on the endangered species list in 1990, a change occurred in Pacific Northwest history and the results are still being felt twenty years later in the timber industry and for private land owners.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Services Recovery Plan, “…the spotted owl was listed in 1990 as a result of widespread loss and adverse modification of suitable habitat across the spotted owl’s entire range and the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms to conserve the spotted owl.” Spotted Owls thrive in old growth areas, which according to the government Northwest Forest Plan, a plan adopted in 1994 by the US Forest Service to restore the health of forests in the Northwest, are defined as forested areas that are “180-220 years old with a moderate-to-high canopy.” For this reason, the timber and logging industry was restricted, requiring 30% of land to be set aside for federal protection in the Northwest Forest Plan. Over 7 million acres were set up as protected, but by 1990, the damage on spotted owl populations had already been done.
The spotted owl is an indicator species, meaning that its health is a reflection of the ecosystem’s health. When scientists, like OSU professor Eric Forsman, initially noticed the decline of spotted owl numbers in the 1970, the statistics also meant a decline in the health of the spotted owl habitat.
While the loss of logging areas destroyed the economy of the Pacific Northwest, the clear cutting of thousands of trees was destroying the ecosystem, according to an article in the Seattle Times. The decline in spotted owls was just an indicator that logging was not happening at a sustainable level. According to the EPA, clear cutting not only decreases biodiversity of wildlife, a necessity for any healthy ecosystem, but also causes excess erosion, degraded water quality whose effects can then be felt by aquatic species miles away. If the government had not taken action in protecting forestland and restricting logging, loggers would still in the long run have lost their jobs because logging was not being done sustainably.
Today the struggle between conserving loggable land and using it for profit remains, whether it is the large private landowner or small one. The correct answer is not black and white however. Large private logging companies can be sued by their owners if they try to work around spotted owls there by not maximize their profits. Small private landowners may want to log too because it is a form of savings. According to John Bailey, a professor at OSU in the Forest Engineering, Resources, and Management Department who works with conversing Dry Forests for Spotted Owls, the issue is complicated and not clear-cut.
“The real issue is for small landowners like grandparents who have harvested for years to pay for their granddaughter to go to school at the UO and then their neighbor tells them they shouldn’t be able to harvest because they might get a spotted owl,” says Bailey. “It becomes complicated and it’s something we have to recognize.”
Others like US Forestry Service Biologists thinks it is the duty of the private landowner to help conserve the habitat of spotted owls.
“I think as society it’s a shame that we don’t feel like we have a responsibility to maintain it [spotted owls] and just push it on to the federal,” says Reid. “A lot of the landowners are not really engaging in active protection. They do the minimum, but they aren’t participating like Allan is [a private land owner Reid works with]. Alan is actively participating on trying to maintain this pair r of owls on his property.”
The pull between human benefits versus animal benefit is no stranger to environmentalists, and for the spotted owl issue, it is complicated, but with understanding for both parties the two can coexist.
BARRED OWLS vs. SPOTTED OWLS
PROFILE ON JANICE REID
She doesn’t follow a trail. Bright green ferns and large trees block her path, but she climbs over them with agility. Her black lab is close in tow behind her.
She stops and looks up to the trees, then at her dog.
“Find a pellet,” she says to her dog. “Find a pellet.” Her dog sniffs the ground, walking in zigzags until suddenly his tail begins to beat back and forth frantically. He nudges her hand. She looks down and sure enough an owl pellet lies camouflaged on the ground.
“We are getting close now,” she says. “They must be around here somewhere.”
Janice Reid, a wildlife biologist for the US Forestry Service, works specifically in the study and research of spotted owls. She and her dog take on multiple Bureau of Land Management (BLM) federally protected sites and some private land to monitor the spotted owls numbers and their health.
“I started working with spotted owls in 1985,” Reid says. “I’ve been doing this for so long, but it’s not real encouraging now.” Reid has witnessed the decline in spotted owls since the start in 1990 when spotted owls were first put on the endangered species list.
She continues hiking following the map she holds in her head. She reaches a large fallen tree and stops. The private landowner accompanying her on his land silently points to a tree right above where they stand. On a mossy branch sits a spotted owl. It stares down at them curiously with giant chocolate brown eyes. Silently, Reid takes out a white mouse from the plastic cage attached to her backpack.
In a rush of air and fluttering wings, the spotted owl flies to an adjacent tree to get a better view of Reid and the landowner. With slow movements, Reid places the mouse on the fallen tree next to her, baiting the owl.
Minutes pass and the owl, just like a cat waiting to pounce, watches the scurrying movement of the mouse.
Suddenly the owl swoops down just feet away from Reid once, twice and then grabs the terrified mouse between its sharp talons. Reid looks not to its beautiful brown eyes, but to its leg where a small pink tag is attached.
“She’s a female,” Reid says.
“Shit,” the private landowner says.
A female means she is not on her nest. It means she has not mated and has not laid any eggs.
“The numbers of pairs are down, but even if they do pair up now, it’s too late because it’s too late in the season to start,” Reid says. “It’s looking pretty dismal.”
Since six years ago when Reid discovered a pair of spotted owls between the border of BLM land and the private landowner’s property, the pairs have nested and reproduced twice. This year is not very encouraging.
“It’s not just this site,” Reid says. “Across our sites it’s pretty low reproduction. When you are talking about barred owls and habitat loss you’ve got some pretty significant things that are affecting the population and you can’t tease out one or the other.”
Reid and the private landowner have a unique relationship. When Reid found the spotted owls on the private land by chance, she was afraid the private landowner would react with anger. Instead the man, who must remain unnamed to protect the safety of the spotted owls on his land from loggers, was genuinely interested in helping to protect the owls.
“I had a long standing desire to manage the land in a way that would enhance conservation efforts,” he says.
Not all private landowners are as willing to sacrifice their land to provide for a small owl. Fortunately for the spotted owls in this region of Oregon, this owner does.
Forty minutes later however, the spotted owl continues to watch the two with no urgency to return to a nest. The reality of the current state of spotted owl populations is apparent, and according to Reid, unless other private landowners start engaging in the protection of their land, the number will continue to drop.