Since 1990, the northern spotted owl has been listed under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened,” meaning it is likely to become “endangered” within all or a significant portion of its range in the foreseeable future. Endangered status is more serious, meaning a species is already in danger of extinction.
There are currently 11 long term “demographic study areas” throughout the spotted owl’s range in Washington, Oregon, and California where owls are annually surveyed. Within those study areas there are dozens of spotted owl sites. Each year, scientists collect “demographic” data (relating to occupancy, survival, reproduction, and movement) from a portion of those sites. Every five years, data from the annual surveys is consolidated to calculate population trend estimates. This is how scientists determine the overall rate of decline or increase in the spotted owl population. (These surveys are designed to monitor population trends, not count how many individual owls there are rangewide; however, scientists estimate there are 7,000 to 10,000.)
The most recent annual survey indicates that the spotted owl continues to decline in seven of the 11 study areas throughout its range. Populations are considered stationary in the other four areas. The overall population is declining at a rate of 2.9 percent per year.
The most important factors scientists consider in assessing the viability of the spotted owl population are the trends in areas where owls are increasing or decreasing and their geographic distribution. Recovery efforts aim to restore depleted populations and stabilize spotted owls so they are well-distributed across their range. This will ensure sufficient genetic interchange and the species’ ability to withstand catastrophic events. Back to top>
What are the main threats to the northern spotted owl?
There are two main threats to the northern spotted owl’s continued survival. One is habitat loss due to timber harvest and catastrophic fire, and the other is competition from barred owls, a larger, more aggressive, and more adaptable relative from eastern North America that has progressively moved into the spotted owl’s range.
In the early years after the spotted owl was listed in 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service anticipated that the spotted owl would continue to decline and that it would take decades to make up for habitat that has been lost over the last 100 years or more. The significance of the barred owl threat has grown significantly since that time.
The recovery plan for the spotted owl includes 34 recommendations that focus primarily on these two threats. Spotted owl recovery can only be achieved by addressing both. Back to top>
How much northern spotted owl habitat is there?
The northern spotted owl generally inhabits older (late-successional) forest habitats with high canopy cover and larger trees (late-successional forests are dominated by stands of mature and old growth age classes). The spotted owl ranges from southwest British Columbia through the Cascade Mountains and coastal ranges in Washington, Oregon, and California, as far south as Marin County.
In 1990 when the spotted owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that its habitat had declined 60-88 percent since the early 1800s.
The latest data indicate there are about 8.6 million acres of nesting and roosting habitat on federal lands and about 3.5 million acres of nesting and roosting habitat on non-federal lands throughout the spotted owl’s range. (Spotted owls use a broader area for foraging, but recovery efforts focus more on nesting and roosting habitat.) Back to top>
What is known about the barred owl’s movement into the northern spotted owl’s range?
Barred owls are native to eastern North America and progressively moved westward over the last century. No one knows why for sure, but most scientists theorize that dramatic changes to the environment in the U.S.’s middle region removed natural barriers that would have prevented the barred owl’s cross-country migration and settlement into new areas.
Barred owls reached the range of the northern spotted owl in British Columbia by about 1959, continued to expand southward, and were first documented in Washington, Oregon, and California in the 1970s. Barred owls now outnumber spotted owls in many portions of the latter’s range. Though more definitive studies are needed, we see evidence that spotted owl populations decline significantly in areas where barred owls have moved into their range. Back to top>
What is known about the interaction between barred owls and northern spotted owls?
Though more definitive studies are needed, a preponderance of evidence strongly indicates that the barred owl threat to spotted owls is extremely pressing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified competition from barred owls as one of two main threats to the spotted owl’s continued survival (habitat loss is the other).
Barred owls are larger, more aggressive, and more adaptable than spotted owls. They are believed to displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting, and compete for food. Researchers also have seen a few instances of barred owls killing spotted owls and interbreeding. Since the spotted owl was already struggling due to its diminished habitat, the effect of the barred owl is like “adding insult to injury.” An already vulnerable population has a much more difficult time withstanding dramatic changes in the ecosystem.
Until recently, most of the information on barred owl/spotted owl interactions was disparate data gathered as part of other field research. Researchers’ observations seemed to indicate that barred owl populations were escalating and causing harm to spotted owls, but they were only getting a sense of the trend, not comprehensive data. These realizations led to specific research to effectively measure barred owl populations and their impacts more broadly.
One example is research conducted by J. David Wiens, Robert G. Anthony, and Eric D. Forsman, and supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These researchers wanted to study competitive interactions between the two species, but realized they first needed to develop effective ways to survey specifically for barred owls.
“Barred Owl Occupancy Surveys Within the Range of the Northern Spotted Owl” was published in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management as a first installment of this research. It confirms the abundance of barred owls in coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest and provides the most accurate sense of the barred owl population to date.
The Wiens/Anthony/Forsman study was the first time researchers developed specific survey methods for barred owls, making it possible to more accurately assess the occurrence and distribution of barred owls over an extensive forested landscape. These researchers also found that barred owls were most likely to be found in the structurally diverse forests of mature and old trees.
The same researchers will publish additional findings on competitive interactions between barred owls and spotted owls in the coming months. Like the results of their new survey methodology, we expect this broader research will provide a more thorough scientific basis for spotted owl recovery actions related to managing barred owls.
Other commonly cited research related to barred owls includes:
Anthony, R.G., E.D. Forsman, A.B. Franklin, D.R. Anderson, K.P. Burnham, G.C. White, C.J. Schwarz, J. Nichols, J.E. Hines, G.S. Olson, S.H. Ackers, S. Andrews, B.L. Biswell, P.C. Carlson, L.V. Diller, K.M. Dugger, K.E. Fehring, T.L. Fleming, R.P. Gerhardt, S.A. Gremel, R.J. Gutiérrez, P.J. Happe, D.R. Herter, J.M. Higley, R.B. Horn, L.L. Irwin, P.J. Loschl, J.A. Reid, and S.G. Sovern. 2006. Status and trends in demography of northern spotted owls, 1985–2003. Wildlife Monograph No. 163.
Forsman, E.D., R.G. Anthony, K.M. Dugger, E.M. Glenn, A.B. Franklin, G.C. White, C.J. Schwarz, K.P. Burnham, D.R. Anderson, J.D. Nichols, J.E. Hines, J.B. Lint, R.J. Davis, S.H. Ackers, L.S. Andrews, B.L. Biswell, P.C. Carlson, L.V. Diller, S.A. Gremel, D.R. Herter, J.M. Higley, R.B. Horn, J.A. Reid, J. Rockweit, J. Schaberl, T.J. Snetsinger, and S.G. Sovern. In press. Population demography of northern spotted owls: 1985–2008. Studies in Avian Biology 40. Cooper Ornithological Society.
Kelly, E.G., E.D. Forsman, and R.G. Anthony. 2003. Are barred owls displacing spotted owls? Condor 105:45–53.
Olson, G.S., R.G. Anthony, E.D. Forsman, S.H. Ackers, P.J. Loschl, J.A. Reid, K.M Dugger, E.M. Glenn, and W.J. Ripple. 2005. Modeling of site occupancy dynamics for northern spotted owls, with emphasis on the effects of barred owls. Journal of Wildlife Management 69:918–932.
Singleton, P.H., J.F. Lehmkuhl, W.L. Gaines, and S.A. Graham. 2010. Barred owl space use and habitat selection in the eastern Cascades, Washington. Journal of Wildlife Management 74:285–294. Back to top>
What is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing about the barred owl threat to the northern spotted owl?
Recently published research provides strong validation for recovery actions the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified to address the threat of the encroaching barred owl.
The most significant effort is an upcoming proposal to conduct a barred owl removal experiment. A draft Environmental Impact Statement for this study will outline options related to experimental removal of barred owls from certain areas of the northern spotted owl’s range to see if removing them would have a positive effect on spotted owls. If the effects are positive, we may consider the feasibility and likely effectiveness of barred owl removal on a broader scale (which would involve a separate EIS process).
The options we’re considering include lethal (killing) or non-lethal (capturing) methods for removing barred owls. There have been several occasions when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found it necessary to carry out lethal measures for one species to fulfill its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to safeguard another listed species. Even so, these are very difficult considerations and we don’t take them lightly. All options are designed to be as humane as possible.
Early on in the process of developing the draft EIS, we hired a prominent environmental ethicist, Dr. William Lynn, to help guide our considerations. Along with a group of stakeholder representatives, Dr. Lynn helped us understand the varying perspectives on the ethical aspects of potential barred owl management decisions. For some people, the debate revolves around whether or not the barred owl’s range expansion is natural or facilitated by human-caused changes to the environment (the majority of theories suggest that it was due to human-caused environmental changes). For others it is the urgent need to act to save the spotted owl.
Another important effort related to barred owl management is the development of an updated survey protocol for the spotted owl—the primary tool for ongoing population monitoring. The survey protocol was first developed in 1992, but needed to be refined because of the increasing presence of barred owls, which affect our ability to detect spotted owls using audio surveys.
Over the past several years, we worked closely with professional spotted owl and barred owl researchers and survey practitioners from federal, state, and private entities, including the timber industry, before developing a revised draft version of the protocol in 2010. It is considered the most practical scientific approach for detecting spotted owls where barred owls are present. Back to top>
What is a recovery plan?
Developing recovery plans for listed species is a significant provision of the Endangered Species Act. Recovery plans are non-regulatory recommendations that consolidate the best available scientific information on listed species. They guide conservation and habitat management activities to help species rebound so they can eventually be delisted.
All listed species are protected from illegal “take” (under the Endangered Species Act, “take” means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct). Recovery plans do not impose additional regulatory protections or restrictions on activities such as land use and management. Recovery plans serve as a key reference for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s consultation with other federal agencies on how their actions could affect recovery.
The history of recovery planning in the case of the northern spotted owl is unique. After the species was listed in 1990, a draft recovery plan was developed and critical habitat was designated in 1992. Two years later, in 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan was developed as a broad conservation framework to address the needs of several late-successional forest-dependent species, including the spotted owl.
Part of that framework was a forestland classification system that established “Late-Successional Reserves” for wildlife conservation and “Matrix” lands for timber harvest. Guiding federal land management and protection measures for the spotted owl and other species, the Northwest Forest Plan amended federal resource management plans within 19 National Forests (19.4 million acres) and seven districts of Bureau of Land Management lands (2.7 million acres). Six National Parks (totaling 2 million acres) also were covered under the Northwest Forest Plan.
Most recovery plans do not include special land classifications or reserve networks. However, it is not uncommon for recovery plans to identify areas of habitat that are considered important to achieve recovery, and areas the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will evaluate for progress in meeting recovery criteria. Information in recovery plans often provides a basis for critical habitat designations, too. Back to top>
What is the status of the northern spotted owl recovery plan?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a revised northern spotted owl recovery plan in June 2011, stepping up actions that so far have helped stem but not reverse its decline. The revised plan identifies two main factors for achieving spotted owl recovery: protecting the best of its habitat and reducing competition from encroaching barred owls.
We developed the first draft recovery plan for the spotted owl as long ago as 1992, but it was not finalized due to the development of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, which served many of the same purposes as a recovery plan.
We finalized the first official recovery plan for the spotted owl in 2008, but decided to revise it after it faced legal challenges and critical review from leading scientific organizations in the conservation community. We released a draft revised recovery plan in September 2010 and public comments were accepted for a 90-day period. The agency reviewed nearly 12,000 public comments on the draft revised plan.
An updated Appendix C—the portion of the draft revised plan relating to a new habitat modeling tool—was made available for an additional 30-day public review and comment period in April 2011. We received about 20 public comments on the updated Appendix C. Back to top>
What are the main provisions of the revised northern spotted owl recovery plan?
The revised recovery plan for the northern spotted owl steps up actions that so far have helped stem but not reverse the old growth forest raptor’s decline. The revised plan identifies three main priorities for achieving spotted owl recovery: protecting the best of its remaining habitat, actively managing forests to improve forest health, and reducing competition from barred owls, a native of eastern North America that has progressively moved into the spotted owl’s range in Washington, Oregon and northern California. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s overarching recommendations are:
Conserving spotted owl sites and high value spotted owl habitat across the landscape. This means the habitat protections provided under land use plans on federal land will continue to be a focus of recovery, but protection of other areas is likely needed to achieve full success (including some of the lands previously slated for potential timber harvest on federal lands, and possibly non-federal lands in certain parts of the owl’s range where federal lands are limited).
Active management of forests to make forest ecosystems healthier and more resilient to the effects of climate change and catastrophic wildfire, disease, and insect outbreaks. This involves an “ecological forestry” approach in certain areas, that will restore ecosystem functioning and resiliency. This may include carefully applied prescriptions such as fuels treatment to reduce the threat of severe fires, thinning, and restoration to enhance habitat and return the natural dynamics of a healthy forest landscape. We recommend this approach in areas where it promotes ecosystem function and is in the best long term interest of owl recovery. We also strongly affirm adaptive management principles to continually evaluate and refine active forest management techniques.
Management of the encroaching barred owl to reduce harm to spotted owls. Most of the recovery actions we have carried out since the spotted owl’s original 2008 recovery plan was finalized deal with the barred owl threat. A major part of this is developing a proposal for experimental removal of barred owls in certain areas to see what effect that would have on spotted owls, and then to evaluate whether or not broad scale removal should be considered. This portion of the 2008 plan was not significantly revised. Back to top>
What is the critical habitat designation process?
Designating critical habitat for listed species is another significant provision in the Endangered Species Act. Unlike recovery plans, critical habitat designations regulate federal agencies’ actions. They define the most essential areas needing protection for listed species to be able to recover. Federal agencies must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on actions that may affect critical habitat.
A critical habitat designation that includes private or other non-federal lands has no direct effect on the landowner unless there is a federal connection, such as a project being funded or permitted by a federal agency.
We invite public review when recovery plans and critical habitat designations are proposed. The Endangered Species Act’s requirements for the critical habitat process are more rigorous, providing for extensive public involvement, thorough scientific review, and a full evaluation of economic impacts of proposed designations.
The northern spotted owl’s first critical habitat designation in 1992 included 6.9 million acres of federal lands in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. This critical habitat designation was revised in 2008 to cover 5.3 million acres of federal lands. Back to top>
What is the status of the northern spotted owl’s critical habitat designation?
The northern spotted owl’s 2008 critical habitat designation will be revised in the coming year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court-ordered deadline to propose a revised critical habitat designation by November 2011 and to finalize it by November 2012. Back to top>
Why were/are the northern spotted owl recovery plan and critical habitat designation being revised?
Both the original 2008 northern spotted owl recovery plan and the 2008 revised critical habitat designation were challenged in court shortly after they were completed. In addition, in December 2008, the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior issued a report concluding that the integrity of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision-making process for the recovery plan was potentially jeopardized by improper political influence. As a result, in July 2009, the federal government requested voluntary remand of the 2008 recovery plan and revised critical habitat designation. In September 2010, the court issued an opinion remanding the 2008 recovery plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuance of a revised plan within nine months (by June 1, 2011, but this deadline was later extended until July 1, 2011). The court subsequently ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose a revised critical habitat designation by November 2011 and a final one by November 2012.
The revised spotted owl recovery plan, completed in June 2011, incorporates new scientific information and addresses concerns raised by members of The Wildlife Society, Society for Conservation Biology, and American Ornithologists’ Union who provided critical peer review on the 2008 plan. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered these organizations’ concerns legitimate and compelling enough to warrant further consideration. Along with our recovery partners, we moved forward with implementing many aspects of the original 2008 recovery plan while developing certain refinements to address legal and scientific concerns. Back to top>
What has been retained from the original 2008 northern spotted owl recovery plan?
The revised northern spotted owl recovery plan is not an overhaul of the original 2008 plan—it would be better described as a series of refinements to incorporate new scientific information and address certain aspects of recovery, mostly relating to the spotted owl’s habitat needs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and recovery partners have moved forward in implementing other portions of the 2008 plan. For example:
Out of the 34 recovery actions in the 2008 plan, 12 deal with managing the encroaching barred owl. These recovery actions did not change significantly in the recovery plan revision process, though some information was updated to reflect recent research. Partners are implementing these recovery actions, including developing a draft Environmental Impact Statement outlining options related to experimental removal of barred owls from certain areas of the spotted owl’s range. The experiment will test whether removing barred owls would have a positive effect on spotted owls. If the effects are positive, we may consider the feasibility and likely effectiveness of barred owl removal on a broader scale (which would involve a separate EIS process).
We also implemented a recovery action to update the spotted owl survey protocol. This is the primary tool for determining the presence of spotted owls and thus a major part of ongoing efforts to monitor trends in the spotted owl population. The main reason the protocol needed updating is the increasing presence of barred owls, which affect researchers’ ability to detect spotted owls during audio surveys.
We’ve moved forward on recovery actions related to evaluating the potential for non-federal lands to contribute to recovery (this need was included in the original 2008 plan and emphasized in the revised plan). One significant accomplishment is the first-ever statewide Safe Harbor agreement for the spotted owl. Providing incentives for small forest landowners in Oregon to participate in recovery, this agreement was completed in 2010. This and other Safe Harbor agreements are good examples of how we intend to work collaboratively with partners and citizens to improve habitat conditions for spotted owls on non-federal lands. (Also see How will the revised northern spotted owl recovery plan affect non-federal lands?) Back to top>
What is different about the revised northern spotted owl recovery plan compared to the original 2008 plan?
The revised northern spotted owl recovery plan builds on the principles originally advanced in the Northwest Forest Plan, aiming to integrate spotted owl recovery into broader conservation efforts for a healthy, resilient Northwest forest landscape. This approach is fitting with the stated purpose of the Endangered Species Act, “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.”
Overall, the revised plan includes more explanation of the considerations the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made and how those shaped our current policy positions. There are five main ways the revised plan is different from the 2008 plan (further explanation is below):
The revised plan recommends conserving spotted owl sites and high value habitat both inside and outside of reserved areas;
It strengthens and expands recommendations for active forest management;
It expands information on the scientific basis for many recommendations throughout the recovery plan.
We are recommending the conservation of spotted owl sites and high value habitat both inside and outside the Late-Successional Reserves established by the Northwest Forest Plan. We believe this is especially important until population trends improve and the best measures for barred owl management are determined.
When planning forest management activities, we recommend that land managers prioritize known and historic owl sites for conservation, considering reproductive status and site condition and giving priority to known sites with: 1) reproductive pairs, 2) known sites with pairs, 3) known sites with resident singles, and 4) historic sites with reproductive pairs, pairs, and resident singles (respectively).
Spotted owl recovery depends upon well distributed, older, and more structurally complex multi-layered conifer forests across the range. These high quality habitat stands are characterized by large diameter trees, high amounts of canopy cover, and components such as broken-topped live trees, mistletoe, cavities, large snags, and fallen trees. We recommend land managers maintain and restore such habitat.
To help ensure the quantity and distribution of habitat needed for recovery, we recommend an interagency scientific team use the latest habitat modeling information and other data (from surveys, for example) to identify high value areas.
Active Forest Management
We also believe the impacts of climate change make active forest management techniques—and an adaptive management approach—increasingly important. Recent scientific literature suggests that climate change and disturbance processes such as wildfire, disease, insect outbreaks, and drought are accelerating. Past forest management practices, such as plantation management and fire suppression, coupled with shifting disturbance patterns and other impacts of climate change, have set the stage for an extremely dynamic and unpredictable forest landscape in the Northwest.
There is still a great deal of uncertainty in the scientific community about the impacts of climate change on forest ecosystem dynamics and what will happen in the future. However, there is mainstream consensus that a “hands-off” approach to managing forests is not the best way to promote the overall health of ecosystems or the broader Northwest forest landscape.
We recommend active forest management with the goal of maintaining or restoring forest ecosystem structure, composition, and process so that they are sustainable and resilient under current and future climate conditions. The majority of published scientific studies support this general approach, though there is some disagreement on how best to achieve it.
We support the careful application of “ecological forestry” in certain areas to emulate natural disturbance processes, providing for spotted owl recovery in the long term and considering likely climate-driven changes in habitat. These approaches will vary on the dry side of the range, east of the Cascade Mountains, and the more moist areas on the west side.
The revised plan stresses the need to continually apply new knowledge and science to active forest management techniques, regularly evaluate their effects on spotted owls, and refine them as appropriate.
Bringing Together the Best Science
We have included in the revised plan much more scientific information on:
Declining spotted owl populations, declining habitat conditions, and genetic concerns that informed recommendations relating to habitat conservation (including the latest information from the annual demographic study area survey and 5-year analysis);
More than 50 published scientific studies that informed recommendations for active forest management, including recently published research concerning climate science (especially the effects of climate change on Northwest forests), fire ecology, and forest restoration; and
Barred owl field research conducted by Oregon State University, the U.S. Geological Survey, and others that was used to update sections relating to the barred owl. Back to top>
Why did the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revise Recovery Actions #10 and #32 from draft to final?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received several comments from land managers expressing concern about the implementability of Recovery Actions 10 and 32. They were concerned that some of the language in the draft plan could be interpreted in a variety of ways and might lead to unintended management consequences. To minimize this, we convened a series of meetings with technical staff from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to consider improvements to the draft language in Recovery Actions 10 and 32. These meetings resulted in language changes that clarified both the intent and the process the agencies would follow. Consequently, these Recovery Actions were modified to better enable the conservation of the highest quality spotted owl habitat (e.g., older growth and occupied forest) in a more prioritized fashion and reduce the likelihood that the recommendations would inadvertently encumber (a) otherwise appropriate timber harvest, or (b) vegetation management aimed at restoring forests through ecological forestry. This was especially necessary to make sure that appropriate dry forest restoration treatments were not unintentionally restricted. The U.S. Forest Service has informed us that they are comfortable that the revised language in the revised plan is compatible with their dry forest management goals. To the extent there is the potential for a variety of professional, scientific opinions about projects proposed under "a" and "b" above, we agreed with the U.S. Forest Service and BLM to identify interim and long term processes for interagency collaboration that would prioritize projects to minimize impacts to spotted owls and to resolve scientific disagreements or to address uncertainty. Back to top>
Why doesn’t the revised northern spotted owl recovery plan include a mapped habitat conservation network?
In the revised northern spotted owl recovery plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a recommendation from the original 2008 plan to establish a new habitat conservation network, or “Managed Owl Conservation Areas.” The revised plan explains the scientific rationale and parameters for the level of habitat conservation we are recommending, but it does not identify a mapped habitat conservation network.
Instead, we will revise the spotted owl’s designated critical habitat to update the most essential areas needed for recovery. Doing so during the critical habitat process—as the Endangered Species Act intended—will be more efficient because it avoids redundancy and inconsistencies and provides more clarity for recovery partners. We consider having multiple land classifications that do not always align (for example, Late-Successional Reserves, Managed Owl Conservation Areas, and critical habitat) a confusing and unnecessary burden on recovery partners.
It is likely that much of the habitat in the Late-Successional Reserve system from the Northwest Forest Plan will continue to serve as the foundation for a spotted owl habitat network on federal lands, as part of critical habitat. But final decisions will take into consideration the most current scientific information and ultimately will be made as part of the critical habitat revision process. Back to top>
What is the status of the habitat modeling tool first described in the draft revised northern spotted owl recovery plan?
As identified in the original 2008 northern spotted owl recovery plan and called for by peer reviewers, a Spotted Owl Modeling Team of experts developed a new computerized modeling tool for assessing spotted owl habitat quality and population dynamics, and predicting the effectiveness of different conservation measures.
The modeling tool synthesizes information gathered from about 4,000 spotted owl sites with data from regional experts throughout the spotted owl’s range on where spotted owls nest and roost, including factors such as forest stand characteristics, slope locations, and elevation. It combines this information with more than 20 years’ worth of demographic data, such as survival and reproductive rates, from annual surveys. This is a first-ever consolidated application of decades of dedicated field monitoring and research by federal, state, tribal, academic, and timber industry sources.
The modeling tool projects this synthesized information onto the landscape to give recovery partners the most accurate rangewide picture of where spotted owls nest and roost and where they are most likely to do so in the future. This information is captured in zonation maps showing different levels of habitat quality so that recovery partners can see what areas are most important to the spotted owl’s continued survival and recovery.
Over the long term, the modeling tool can be used by land managers to evaluate specific recovery actions throughout the lifespan of the recovery plan. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be better able to prioritize areas where Safe Harbor agreements and Habitat Conservation Plans (voluntary conservation agreements with private landowners) would be beneficial. In addition, a number of different variables likely to affect spotted owl survival and reproduction rates—such as predicted climate change impacts—can be plugged into the model to evaluate how spotted owl populations could be affected. The modeling tool will be useful for government agencies and the public to evaluate potential future proposals, for example, to amend land use management plans and revise spotted owl critical habitat.
When the draft revised recovery plan was released for public review and comment in September 2010, it described the modeling tool and included initial zonation maps. In early 2011, we expanded Appendix C to include further description and explanation of the modeling tool’s purpose, as well as information on how it had been tested. The agency made the updated Appendix C available for an additional 30-day public review and comment period in April 2011, and received about 20 public comments. Back to top>
How will the revised northern spotted owl recovery plan affect timber harvest on federal lands?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service values the ongoing dialogue and coordinated effort with federal land management agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, whose role in spotted owl recovery is critical. Recovery efforts have always been accomplished through collaboration among government agencies, states, tribes, industry, environmental organizations, and academic institutions. Marshalling diverse perspectives, expertise, and resources toward the spotted owl’s greatest recovery needs gives us the best chance for success in recovering the owl and sustaining healthy Northwest forests for their many values.
After the draft revised northern spotted owl recovery plan was released in September 2010, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM raised concerns over the plan’s effects on timber harvest. Since that time, both agencies significantly modified their original estimates of those impacts (Forest Service letter; BLM letter). About 20 million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands and about 2 million acres of BLM lands are potentially affected by spotted owl recovery plan recommendations.
There is no question that timber harvest in the Northwest has declined significantly over the last few decades and that habitat conservation for the spotted owl has contributed to stronger forest protections since it was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. However, there are a number of other contributing factors to the decline in timber harvest in the Northwest. These include:
Federal land managers’ requirements to protect riparian reserves under the Aquatic Conservation Strategy, part of the Northwest Forest Plan;
Specific legal requirements, such as those under “Survey and Manage” litigation for the BLM. These requirements relate to a host of late-successional forest-dependent species included in the conservation provisions of the Northwest Forest Plan;
Other specific timber sales, especially in old growth forests, have repeatedly been stalled due to litigation that is not necessarily related to the spotted owl (in some cases, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially determined timber sales will not jeopardize the spotted owl population, yet the sales face other legal challenges).
In addition, estimates on the impacts of spotted owl recovery on timber harvest also should take into account:
The revised recovery plan recommends relaxing restrictions in Late-Successional Reserves for 80-year-old trees, which may increase timber output in some areas where it does not jeopardize the spotted owl population, and
Some additional timber output can be expected from “ecological forestry” management practices recommended in the revised plan. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is providing support for pilot projects on BLM lands in southwestern Oregon that demonstrate the “ecological forestry” approach.) This approach will vary in different areas, but may involve careful thinning to help older trees grow faster, and treatments to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, disease outbreaks, and insect infestations. Back to top>
How will the revised northern spotted owl recovery plan affect non-federal lands?
Protecting habitat on federal lands has been the focus area of recovery efforts since the northern spotted owl was listed in 1990, but in more recent years, the sufficiency of federal land protection alone has been increasingly questioned. The revised spotted owl recovery plan acknowledges that certain areas on non-federal lands can (and do) play a valuable role in recovery, and recommends working collaboratively with valuable conservation partners such as state agencies, private landowners, and American Indian tribal governments.
The revised plan does not lay out specific details on a role for non-federal lands in recovery. Rather, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends ongoing dialogue and collaborative decision-making with state agency partners and citizens as the best way forward. We will continue to consult and collaborate with American Indian Tribal governments in accordance with their status as sovereign nations with inherent powers of self-governance. Several American Indian Tribes have long worked to conserve and monitor spotted owls on their lands, making valuable contributions to recovery.
Our goal is to work with partners and citizens to evaluate the potential contribution of state and private lands to recovery in areas where federal lands are limited. In those areas, we will work jointly to develop economic and other sensible incentives for voluntary habitat conservation measures such as Safe Harbor agreements and Habitat Conservation Plans.
A perfect example is the first-ever statewide Safe Harbor agreement for the spotted owl that was finalized in September 2010. This is a partnership with the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Natural Resources Conservation Service providing incentives for private forest landowners to adopt conservation measures that benefit the spotted owl—and it is entirely voluntary.
This approach has been successful for many other listed species. For example, over the last 16 years, 409 non-federal landowners in 24 states and one U.S. territory have enrolled 4.4 million acres in 81 Safe Harbor agreements, benefiting 77 species listed under the ESA. Over the same time period, the Service has developed 710 Habitat Conservation Plans.
There are currently five Safe Harbor agreements for the spotted owl—two in Washington, one (statewide) in Oregon, and two in northern California. There are currently 13 Habitat Conservation Plans for the spotted owl: six in Washington covering more than 2 million acres, three in Oregon covering 300,000 acres, and four in California covering more than 200,000 acres.
A Safe Harbor is a voluntary agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a private landowner. Safe Harbors are area- and species-specific, though they sometimes cover more than one species with similar habitat needs. Safe Harbors encourage private landowners to carry out habitat conservation measures on their land to benefit listed species. In exchange, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides assurances that future land use restrictions will not be imposed if the species is then attracted to the site.
Under Safe Harbors, some “incidental take” of individual listed species may potentially occur in return for the landowner’s commitment to conservation measures that contribute to the overall recovery of that species in the long term. (“Incidental take” is just that—it refers to take that is incidental to, and not the purpose of, the carrying out of an otherwise lawful activity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can authorize such take through a special permit process—a key part of Safe Harbor agreements and Habitat Conservation Plans.)
Similarly, Habitat Conservation Plans are for non-federal landowners, usually an organization or business, whose otherwise lawful activities are expected to occasionally result in incidental take of a listed species. We work with the landowner to develop provisions for monitoring, minimizing, and mitigating for its potential incidental take—again contributing to the listed species’ overall recovery. Back to top>
How long will it take to recover the northern spotted owl?
Listed species usually go through three general phases. First and foremost, they are protected from going extinct. Then, initial recovery actions help a listed species’ population stabilize. The final phase is turning the trajectory around and helping the species rebound to the point it no longer needs Endangered Species Act protection. This recovery phase is often the most difficult and time-consuming.
The revised northern spotted owl recovery plan outlines actions over a 30-year timeframe and envisions that recovery can be accomplished in that time. (The original 2008 recovery plan also was a 30-year plan, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service anticipated evaluating and potentially revising it after 10 years, based on additional data expected relating to the barred owl threat.)
Reducing the barred owl threat remains our most imminent challenge. We believe there is a good chance of succeeding in recovering the spotted owl over the long term if that challenge can be adequately addressed in the short term. Back to top>
What comes next?
Recovery partners will continue implementing the northern spotted owl recovery plan. Some related upcoming milestones:
Fall 2011: Releasing a draft Environmental Impact Statement on experimental removal of encroaching barred owls in certain areas.
November 2011: Proposing a revised critical habitat designation for the spotted owl.
November 2012: Following completion of an economic analysis and public review, finalizing a revised critical habitat designation for the spotted owl. Back to top>