Despite massive effort, spotted owl populations at an all-time low

A threatened owl could disappear from much of its range unless old-growth forests are protected and invasive barred owls are controlled.

The northern spotted owl has long been one of the most prominent species of the Pacific Northwest. With white-speckled brown plumage, big brown eyes, and a wingspan of up to four feet, these nocturnal birds rely solely on old-growth forests. They swoop between ancient Douglas fir and ponderosa pine on the hunt for salamanders and small rodents. For decades, researchers and conservationists have spent enormous time, effort, and money trying to protect them.

But the owls’ numbers are the lowest on record—their population has declined by somewhere between 50 and 75 percent since 1995, according to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation.

“We were anticipating that it would not be good, but we weren't quite ready for it to be as bad as it was,” says Alan Franklin, a supervisory research biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center, and the study’s lead author. The owl’s numbers, he said, are the lowest since monitoring began.

The study warns that drastic steps need to be taken to save the owl. These animals only live in old-growth forests, which have declined by 70 percent over the past three decades due to logging and development. The ancient forest that's left must be protected, the authors say, for the owls to have a chance.

But they’re most threatened by barred owls, an invasive bird that outcompetes them. The study warns that populations of these invaders must be significantly curtailed throughout the spotted owl’s range. Otherwise, the authors conclude that the northern spotted owl will probably disappear from much of its habitat over the next 50 years.

But this is easier said than done—and the study raises thorny questions about how best to save this threatened species.

What lies ahead for the owl, Franklin says, is “an uncertain but disturbing future.”

Conducted every five years, this most recent survey covered a total area of 4.6 million acres across the owls’ habitat in northern California, Oregon, and Washington. The study regions were selected to give a full picture of the forest and land conditions across the owl’s habitat.

When population surveys began in 1985, scientists thought that habitat loss was the bird’s main threat. But in the 1990s, when the species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and a plan was adopted to balance timber harvests on federal land with conservation, another competitor swooped in from the east somewhat unexpectedly.

Barred owls—now common in the Pacific Northwest—are bigger, have a broader diet and a more aggressive demeanor, and are able to outcompete the spotted owl for food and nesting sites. Barred owls are now the native owl’s main threat.

To tackle this invasive species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has taken to shooting the barred owl in 2013, and so far, its pilot projects have been relatively successful. This “lethal management” now takes place over 580,000 acres and has been extended through this August. After that, the FWS will work with other agencies to use the information gathered, along with other relevant research, to formulate a broader barred owl management plan and decide on next steps, says Jodie Delavan, a FWS public affairs officer.

"The Service is optimistic that a barred owl management program can be put in place that is successful and cost-effective,” Delavan says.

So far more than 3,100 barred owls have been removed at a cost of an estimated $8.5 million.

It’s unclear, however, whether any of the pilot projects’ successes can be replicated on a larger scale. And Franklin says they don’t know the percentage that barred owl populations need to decline to make a significant difference.

“Even if we had all the resources,” said Susan Jane Brown, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who has been fighting to protect the northern spotted owl for over 30 years, “can we push back the invader to the point that the native species can recover?”

Timber and fire

Meanwhile, the birds remain threatened by deforestation. In its final days, the Trump administration announced a plan to open 3.4 million acres of designated critical habitat—land deemed essential to the survival of the species—to logging. The Interior Department under President Biden, however, has halted implementing this plan, which is currently under review.

Such decisions almost always prompt lawsuits. Environmental groups are currently suing to protect the 3.4 million acres as the timber industry is suing to challenge Biden’s delay of Trump's plan. But while the legal tug of war is carried out in the courts, logging is able to continue in the forests.

Protecting the owl’s habitat from clear-cutting, however, may not be enough. As the study notes, there’s a high risk that local communities of northern spotted owls could be wiped out by worsening wildfires driven in large part by climate change. About 2.1 million acres of the owl’s forest home, nearly the same size as Puerto Rico, was destroyed last year in the fires, according to the study. A large portion of that—370,000 acres, much larger than Rocky Mountain National Park— was critical to nesting and roosting.

While small fires can open up pockets here and there and help create new habitat, huge blazes hurt the animals. “The biggest concern [are] large, severe megafires,” Franklin says,  “where basically all they leave behind are burned sticks.”

Together, the effects of logging, the invasive barred owl, and wildfires are incredibly challenging to overcome.

What to do?

Weighing priorities, though, is an ever-present struggle. “Conservation never has enough resources,” said Gwen Iacona, an applied conservation scientist at Arizona State University.

Spending over $8 million for an eight-year pilot project might sound like a lot of money to dedicate to one species whose population continues to plummet despite decades-long conservation efforts. And for some, it raises the question of whether it’s a wise use of funds.

Brown says she thinks it is, “for ethical and moral issues... but I can see how others would disagree. It kind of depends on whether you can—or want—to put a price tag on nature and biodiversity conservation.”

For comparison, the cost of successfully boosting California condor numbers from just 22 birds remaining in the wild in the 1980s to over 300 today is estimated to be upwards of $35 million. Meanwhile, it cost between $10-20 million to reintroduce gray wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.

Brown notes, however, the timber industry has earned billions of dollars from logging the ancient trees which the owls call home. “Is a few, or even several, million dollars today to conserve and recover an imperiled species worth that trade-off?”

Experts argue that in the case of the northern spotted owl, it’s about more than just that one bird. “You're not managing for one species, you're managing for hundreds of species that are dependent on old growth,” says Kimberly Baker, public land advocate at the Environmental Protection Information Center.

Spending that money to help save the owl, in other words, helps protect many other animals and plants as well, Iacona says.

Plus, reducing barred owl populations doesn’t just help these birds. These invasive predators eat endangered salamanders, for example, along with shrews, voles, and flying squirrels, a favorite of the spotted owl. “Look at what other effects they're having on the landscape,” Franklin says.

But, if conservation efforts are directed only towards trying “to blast away at the barred owl," said Matthew Betts, a professor at Oregon State University, "it just wouldn’t be a feasible thing to do."

Focusing on the bigger picture of maintaining old-growth forests, however, and the benefit to the northern spotted owl as well as the canopy-dwelling salamanders and voles and specialized lichens and moss, says Betts, "you almost can't put a price on that."

Brown fears that regardless of what argument is applied to save the species—whether legal, moral, or ecological—“oftentimes it comes down to we can't afford it or don't want to afford it.”

Meanwhile, time is running out. “It's going to take a herculean effort to reverse course,” Brown says.


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