Contributions from Andrew Orahoske and Rob DiPerna
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a Revised Recovery Plan  for the Northern Spotted Owl, which has been listed as threatened with extinction for the past 20 years. The previous Recovery Plan was tampered with for political reasons, and turned out to be highly inadequate. Along with a coalition of groups, EPIC sued over the politically tainted version and the federal government agreed to complete a new plan. The promised revision is a step in the right direction to protect this iconic species of northwestern forests.
The Recovery Plan addresses multiple threats. It takes climate change into consideration and targets the barred owl, an invasive species from the East that competes for spotted owl habitat. The plan reiterates the importance of national forests and other federal lands to the survival of the owl, and recommends extensive forest restoration to speed the recovery of old-growth forests. Furthermore, it invites private forest landowners to safeguard the spotted owl by protecting suitable habitat and proposes incentives for furthering the species’ recovery.
Old-growth forests, the owls’ preferred habitat, has been logged for decades and continues to be threatened. While the plan uses new mapping to identify the best habitat for the owl, it does not include specific reserves. Critical habitat will be designated when researchers complete a mapping and computer project that predicts survival rates based on the best habitat.
On the west side of the Cascades, the plan will likely result in a net benefit to old forests. But on the drier east side a massive amount of forest thinning is proposed. The impact of thinning on owls is not well understood. The plan is vague about how to slow down logging if it proves detrimental to the birds. In the redwood region, some of the most important habitat for recovering the owl is held by large private interests. The fate of the owl very much rests in the treatment of these important private lands.
Populations continue to decline from Washington to Northern California. It’s about an entire ecosystem on a downward spiral. Protecting all remaining old growth makes sense. Older trees store more carbon than younger trees and may dampen the effects of global warming. The recovery plan relies on how federal and state agencies administer the plan, not just for owls but for clean water, salmon and carbon storing.