A Look Back at the Controversy of the Northern Spotted Owl

Younger people may not have even heard about the northern spotted owl and might not know about the controversy, and over-reaction, that surrounded and still surrounds the bird. It is important to know the information, though, so a similar occurrence doesn’t happen again.

In the early 1970’s, one of three sub-species of spotted owls, the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), became a concern. Environmentalist groups noted that there were very few sightings of this owl and the sightings that did happen usually occurred in “old-growth forest”. They assumed that this meant that the bird was endangered and had to have an old-growth forest to live in.

Mostly through lobbying activities, the northern spotted owl was listed as ‘potentially endangered’ in 1973. However, there were a few problems with this designation from the beginning.

First, just because a creature is rarely seen doesn’t mean that few exist. It merely indicates that the creature is shy, has coloration that makes it difficult to see, or it is most active when people aren’t. In the case of the northern spotted owl, all three conditions apply.

The northern spotted owl isn’t a large bird and it definitely isn’t conspicuous. The bird is brown with white ‘spots’ that allow it to blend into the background particularly well. It is also nocturnal, like many other owls, making it even more difficult to detect. Additionally, the bird tends to be very shy, particularly in the presence of humans or other large predators.

The second problem was that just because the recorded sightings occur in a specific habitat, this doesn’t mean that the animal only lives exclusively that habitat.

The Endangered designation and the link to old-growth forests (though no link was proven) resulted in the blocking of timber sales over a large amount of forests. In 1981, there was a proposal to establish a 1,000-acre buffer zone around every northern spotted owl. By 1990, 3 million acres of old-growth forests were set aside to protect the owl and timber sales were blocked. In 1991, a plan was proposed to set aside another 11.6 million acres of old-growth forest for the owl.

It should be noted here that there was still no proof that northern spotted owls required old-growth forests, but the US Fish & Game, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management was bullied and gave in to demands by environmental activists.

Additionally, the definition of ‘old-growth’ underwent some changes. Old-growth is simply a reference to a mature forest, but many groups took this term to mean forests that had never been logged. That meant that forests that were harvested and later planted under high-yield techniques couldn’t ever be old-growth, by their distorted definition.

By 1994, logging was reduced from a little more than 4 billion board-feet per year to 1 billion board-feet, all to protect this owl, which some subsequent research has shown might not be endangered at all.

In fact, it has also been shown that the northern spotted owl may not need old-growth in order to survive, either. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, there were a number of sightings of this bird in high-yield forests that had been planted by the US Forest Service. A mating pair of northern spotted owls were also found nesting in a culvert that ran under the airport in Medford, Oregon, too. Medford isn’t surrounded by dense forests and it is a long way from the nearest old-growth forest.

It was discovered, too, that the biggest threat to the northern spotted owls were great horned owls, which preyed on the smaller owls.

Sadly, as late as 1999 and 2000, timber sales were still being blocked or put on hold because of spotted owls.

Through the time frame mentioned here, tens of thousands of people lost their livelihood and hundreds of communities were negatively impacted by the over-reaction. Many former timber towns are now barely surviving at all. The price of lumber has skyrocketed as well, and this has impacted wood prices and the housing industry throughout the country. Indeed, it has also affected other countries who have been buying lumber from the US. (Note that the US laws and regulations require that 1.5 acres of trees must be planted for every acre harvested. Most timber companies exceed that substantially, so there are now more trees in the US than there were in 1800. This is a renewable resource.)

Ironically, by blocking timber sales, timber harvest, and subsequent replanting of forests, more forests have been allowed to die from disease and infestation and the fire hazard has grown tremendously, contributing to last year’s fires that destroyed millions of acres of old-growth forest and more forest this year.

Still, many people have opinions and make guesses, though we don’t know if this bird is actually endangered, we don’t know for sure what kind of habitat is truly requires, and most of what we have to go on are the opinions and guesses rather than on facts.

To date, there are still no accurate counts of the northern spotted owl and its true status is unknown.

What do you think?

3 points

Written by Rex Trulove

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  1. Oh the whole spotted owl debacle. They shut down all clear cutting in several areas because they said the birds had nowhere to nest. Some fives years later they find that they burrow in the clear cut areas to nest.

    Sometimes environmentalists with great ideals and big hearts, don’t get the science right.

      • When trees are harvested, one and a half acres are planted for every acre harvested. Because of the spotted owls, trees aren’t being harvested and one and a half times more trees aren’t being planted. The forested areas reserved for the owl are also losing trees because those forests can’t be managed as that would disturb the owls.

        Thus, the answer to “who wants to see trees anyway” is pretty much everyone except the environmentalists that are blocking the timber sales due to the spotted owls. They are also often hypocritical because those same environmentalists usually use wood products.

    • I’m not fond of clear-cutting, except for fir. Pine really shouldn’t be clear-cut. Selective logging is best, but even that was shut down due to the owl. Many towns have dried up because of it. The worst part is that because of the owl, more forests have been destroyed by fire and less acreage has been replanted because that would ‘disturb’ the owl.

      Most of the forest that was blocked also wasn’t old-growth, by either definition, so they’ve actually been destroying their own argument.

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