The northern spotted owl is an inconspicuous and elusive forest resident, yet in recent times it has been propelled to the forefront of the battle to save old-growth forests. It depends acutely on old-growth forest habitat which, once upon a time, stretched unbroken from Alaska to California, forests which are now mostly long forgotten memories. The northern spotted owl, an excellent indicator of forest health, has seen its numbers drop dramatically as a result of unchecked logging of these ancient trees.

The Bush administration ramped up attacks on shrinking owl habitat in 2008 by releasing a recovery plan that proposed less habitat protection than the science-based Northwest Forest Plan, as well as by slashing more than a million acres of critical habitat for the owl.

Yet there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the northern spotted owl. President Obama unveiled an ambitious plan at the end of November last year to double the protected habitat for the species, a move aimed to keep the owl from where it is precariously perched towards extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that 9.6 million acres of Oregon, Washington and Northern California will come under its provisions, almost all of it federal lands.

The amount is down from nearly 14 million acres proposed last February but still exceeds the 5.3 million acres proposed in 2008. The biggest cut came in private timberlands — 1.3 million acres. State forests covering 271,000 acres remain.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said it appeared that the critical habitat plan was back in line with the Northwest Forest Plan adopted in 1994 to protect owls and salmon.

“In restoring extensive protections on federal lands, today’s decision … marks the end of a dark chapter in the Endangered Species Act’s implementation when politics were allowed to blot out science,” he said. “The owl has continued to decline since its protection under the Endangered Species Act. Part of the reason for that is the loss of habitat on private and state lands.”

(source: Center for Biological Diversity)

The designation of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990 triggered a 90 per cent cutback in logging on national forests in the northwest and similar reductions around the nation. Even so, the northern spotted owl has seen a 40 per cent decline during the past 25 years.

Despite the good news, conservation groups were disappointed by the exclusion of all private and most state lands, resulting in a 4.2 million cut from the proposed designation.

For example, a large extent of critical owl habitat falls on private lands in the Redwood coast, which are absolutely essential because the owl’s productivity is consistently higher in the redwood zone as compared with the remainder of the range.

“The evidence is overwhelming that redwood forests are essential to the conservation of the species. Leaving them out of the final rule is a big mistake,” remarked Andrew Orahoske, conservation director for the Environmental Protection Information Center.

“The forests that owls depend on are the same forests we cherish for clean drinking water, habitat for salmon and other wildlife, and outdoor recreation with our families,” added Joseph Vaile, program director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, Ore. “We need to focus on protecting and restoring our remaining mature and old-growth forests across all lands, so we can recover endangered wildlife and produce sustainable jobs in rural communities.”

At most, 20 per cent of the Pacific Northwest’s original old-growth forests remain. In addition to providing critical habitat for spotted owls, salmon, steelhead and other species, old-growth forests are important sources of clean water and help reduce global warming.

Photo Credit: USFWS Endangered Species

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