At first glance, 66 million dead trees may seem like a very large number, but it is important to remember that there are 33 million acres of forest in California, so the total effect of the recent pulse of tree mortality has been to add an average of only two snags per acre. To put that number in perspective, forest animals that live in snags generally need at least four to eight snags per acre to provide sufficient habitat and some species require even more snags. For example, California spotted owls use forests with eight to twelve snags to nest and rest and they prefer even higher levels of snags in the areas where they gather their food. And black-backed woodpeckers depend on snag forests with at least several dozen dead trees per acre. These points and many others were addressed in a letter from scientists to California Gov. Brown in February. -- Douglas Bevington, EcoWatch.com, Aug. 6, 2016.
California Fish and Game Commission to weigh in on spotted owl, Delta bass
Should the northern spotted owl – whose federal conservation status in the 1990s hit the state’s timber industry – receive even more protection under the state’s Endangered Species Act?
And if anglers are allowed to take more non-native bass from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, will more endangered fish survive?
The California Fish and Game Commission will consider those two questions later this month.
The commissioners will consider conflicting testimony on Aug. 25 in Folsom from environmental groups and the timber industry on whether they should grant state endangered species protections for the northern spotted owl.
In the 1990s, the federal government protected the owl under the Endangered Species Act, leading to logging reductions in Western states’ old-growth forests.
Rob DiPerna of the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center said the federal protections haven’t stopped the owls’ numbers from continuing to decline in the face of habitat loss and the arrival of non-native barred owls that compete with the spotted owls. He said it’s time for the state to step in to ensure the species comes back from the brink of extinction.
“If we don’t take a lot more aggressive, immediate conservation actions, we’re going to lose the species in California and everywhere else in its range,” DiPerna said.
George Gentry, vice president of regulatory affairs for the California Forestry Association, said that the federal protections were working and the northern spotted owls were recovering – until barred owls began aggressively expanding into their range. He said the commissioners should focus on the harms caused by barred owls rather than on land-use policy.
“If we waste time with a whole bunch of bureaucratic processes, and not focus on this barred owl situation, we may lose the northern spotted owl,” he said.
In a report to the commission, state wildlife officials recommend listing the species as threatened. They cited barred owls, climate change, destructive wildfires, marijuana farming and habitat loss from timber harvests as threats to the species...
Don’t Get Burned by Misinformation About Dead Trees and Wildfire
In California, dead trees are big news. In June, the U.S. Forest Service reported that 66 million trees had died since 2010 as the state has experienced a prolonged drought. Drought stress has weakened trees' natural defenses to native bark beetles, resulting in a pulse of tree mortality. Yet amid all of the media coverage of the tree mortality, there has been little mention of the ecological importance of dead trees.
Dead Trees are Vital
Dead trees can remain standing for decades or more and a standing dead tree—known as a "snag"—provides great habitat for wildlife. Birds and mammals make their homes in openings carved within snags, while wood-boring insects that feed on snags provide the foundation of the food chain for a larger web of forest life, akin to plankton in the ocean.
With so much life abounding, it doesn't seem right to call a snag "dead." We commonly associate that word with meaning the end of one's useful life and yet when a tree becomes a snag, it actually reaches a pinnacle of its beneficial role in the ecosystem. In other words, snags are a vital and vibrant part of the forest.
When many snags are created together in what is known as a "snag forest," it produces some of the highest levels of native biodiversity of any forest type. Some forest animals, such as black-backed woodpeckers, depend on finding places with large swaths of snags. Unfortunately for them, unlogged snag forests have become quite rare.
The Deficit of Dead Trees
From the perspective of the timber industry, a snag in the forest is a waste, so timber companies and the Forest Service have spent decades cutting down snags as quickly as possible. As a result, there is now a significant lack of snags in our forests and this shortage is harming woodpeckers, owls and other forest wildlife. For them, the recent pulse of snag creation is good news.
At first glance, 66 million dead trees may seem like a very large number, but it is important to remember that there are 33 million acres of forest in California, so the total effect of the recent pulse of tree mortality has been to add an average of only two snags per acre. To put that number in perspective, forest animals that live in snags generally need at least four to eight snags per acre to provide sufficient habitat and some species require even more snags. For example, California spotted owls use forests with eight to twelve snags to nest and rest and they prefer even higher levels of snags in the areas where they gather their food. And black-backed woodpeckers depend on snag forests with at least several dozen dead trees per acre. These points and many others were addressed in a letter from scientists to California Gov. Brown in February.
Cashing in on Fear of Fire
Despite the ecological benefits from the recent pulse of tree mortality, logging advocates have been eager to cut down the snags. In attempting to sway the public to support large-scale logging, they have not highlighted the wildlife habitat created by these snags or the overall snag deficit, but instead they have stoked fears that dead trees will cause severe wildfires. This claim is generally presented by portraying the trees only as "fuel" for fire. Depicting trees solely as "fuel" is a simplistic and misleading approach that reduces the natural complexity of the forest to a single dimension, resulting in erroneous assumptions about what really occurs.
In fact, dozens of published scientific studies of what actually happens when beetle-affected areas burn show that dead trees do not cause severe fires. One recent study even found that areas with tree mortality burn at lower severity than green tree forests. Dr. Dominick DellaSala of the Geos Institute recently published a synthesis of this research and concluded, "There is now substantial field-based evidence showing that beetle outbreaks do not contribute to severe fires nor do outbreak areas burn more severely when a fire does occur."
The results of the field research are inconvenient for those who try to use tree mortality as a justification for more logging. For example, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, made no mention of these studies in his June press release about the California tree mortality. Instead, he falsely claimed that the tree die-offs "increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires" and then he used that claim to lobby for increased funding for his agency.
The biomass power industry in California is also trying to cash in on this fire scare regarding dead trees. Biomass power facilities generate electricity by burning trees and other vegetation. This process is remarkably inefficient, with biomass burning facilities contributing to global warming byemitting more carbon per unit of energy produced than coal or natural gas facilities. (Moreover, in contrast to biomass power, renewable energy sources that don't burn carbon—such as roof-top solar—have no emissions). Biomass power is also economically inefficient, requiring substantial taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies, as well as regulatory loopholes, to keep biomass facilities in business. Thus, the current use of fear of fire to try to justify subsidized logging of snags to fuel biomass facilities is bad news for the climate and taxpayers, as well as for forest ecosystems.
A New Understanding of Forest Diversity
Rather than allowing logging proponents to exploit fear and misinformation about fire, we have a collective opportunity to learn from the current pulse of tree mortality and develop a greater understanding of the full diversity of California's forests. Dead trees, including large patches of snags, are a vital part of the forest. We should appreciate them, along with the natural processes that create them, such as beetles and wildfires. While forest protection efforts have historically focused on green trees, forests come in a variety of colors that also deserve protection, including trees with brown needles and trees with blackened bark. Their diversity provides the basis for a diversity of forest life.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Evidence of Absence: Northern Spotted Owls are Still Vanishing from the Northwest
Protecting Old Growth Forests
“The bottom line is that extinction rates went down when the amount of habitat went up,” U.S. Geological Survey biologist Katie Dugger, lead author of the 2015 demographic study, said in a presentation on the findings last fall. “Spotted Owls cannot exist without old-growth forest. And now we’re talking about two species trying to use the same space, so in fact we need more of it.”
Now the Forest Service and BLM are moving to update the land-use plans that fall under the Northwest Forest Plan, and new battle lines are being drawn over where and how additional habitat protections should be placed. It is, in a way, a quieter, more bureaucratic reprise of the old timber wars, only with a more complicated mix of threats and an even more precarious future for Spotted Owls.
The outcome matters even if the species is ultimately wiped out in the Northwest. After all, the fight “was never really just about Spotted Owls,” points out Eric Forsman, who, until retiring in 2015, was one of the Forest Service’s top Spotted Owl biologists. “It was always more about protecting the incredible structural and species diversity that was present in these older forests.”
A few days before Thanksgiving, I meet Forsman at the Forestry Sciences Laboratory on the Oregon State University campus. He leads me through a warren of hallways to a windowless room crammed with office furniture.
“I’m the only one who’s ever here,” he comments, pointing at one dusty workstation. “That guy might be dead.”
Forsman has square shoulders and a certain appraising merriment. Nine binders on his desk are devoted to ropes and rigging—material for a class he’s teaching on tree climbing for wildlife research. Another is labeled simply “VOLE TEETH.” Suspenders hung from Forsman’s cubicle wall are emblazoned with “SPOTTED OWL HUNTER” in red letters—a souvenir from a time when tensions were so high that some owls turned up dead.
Metaphorically speaking, the slogan could apply to Forsman, too. He started stalking Spotted Owls in the early 1970s, after a face-to-face encounter inspired a master’s degree project searching for the species across Oregon. At that time, very little was known about its basic biology. Ominously, he found logging had occurred or was scheduled in more than half of the owl habitats he located. Driven by a thriving export market in the ‘70s and ‘80s, federal timber harvests in Washington, Oregon, and northern California rocketed to 4 to 5 billion board feet annually—rates that would have eliminated federal Spotted Owl habitat outside parks and wilderness in decades. Forsman and other scientists raised the alarm.
Forsman shows off bones gleaned from owl pellets. Photo by Terray Sylvester.
Environmental groups soon piled on. The Seattle Audubon Society sued the Forest Service for failing to meet its National Forest Management Act obligation to maintain “viable” populations of species, and in 1989 won an injunction from federal district judge William Dwyer blocking over 100 timber sales. Two years later, Dwyer blocked further logging in owl habitat until the feds came up with defensible protections.
The Northwest Forest Plan—forced by the Clinton Administration and developed by scientists in just 90 days—was the compromise that ended the stalemate. On both national forest and BLM land, it created 10 million acres of new reserves to safeguard old-growth forests and stream corridors from further cutting (though some of the land inside reserves had already been clearcut). Another 5.5 million acres were to provide regular timber harvests, with a predicted annual output of about 1 billion board feet. Because about 20 percent of remaining ancient stands were not inside reserves, the agreement also instated a “Survey and Manage” mitigation program that required agencies to look for a suite of rare species before logging could occur, and protect them with buffers when found.
At the time, Barred Owls were still a novelty in the Northwest. It’s impossible to know for sure what facilitated their arrival, but the prevailing theory is that the Great Plains once served as a vast moat, confining them to their native eastern forests. As westbound settlers planted trees and snuffed out fires, new forest crept along the Missouri River and its tributaries. Barred Owls leapfrogged into Washington in 1965, Oregon in 1972, and California in 1976.
Not even the Northwest Forest Plan—a revolutionary advancement of landscape-scale ecosystem management—was sweeping enough to deal with a continent in flux. Worse, it had come too late to reverse the decline that would make Spotted Owls so vulnerable to the new arrivals.
Threatened By Barred Owls
As Barred Owls have expanded across the Pacific Northwest, they’ve settled everywhere—from suburban neighborhoods to the same old-growth forests beloved by Spotted Owls. Because they’re generalist predators, they can pack in much tighter: in Oregon’s Coast Range, researchers recently found Barred Owls three to four pairs deep in territories that once supported one Spotted Owl pair. Add the fact that Barred Owls can produce four times as many owlets as Spotted Owls, and the math is bleak.
Northern Spotted Owl is smaller than its cousin the Barred Owl. It's also darker, and has spots on its breast. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.
“It makes me sad,” says Forsman, who’s pessimistic about the Spotted Owls’ prospects. But “range expansions are a part of natural systems. We just happened to be watching when one occurred. Even if [we’re to blame], we’re probably going to have to live with it.”
In Washington’s Olympic National Park, Barred Owls have filled the drainages like water in a bathtub. Last year, the monitoring crew there found just three Spotted Owl pairs and three single birds on 54 territories.
“We’re essentially proving absence on 80 percent of the sites,” says National Park Service wildlife biologist Scott Gremel. “It’s impossible for me to see a pathway where we don’t have extirpation of Spotted Owls from the Olympic Mountains unless we go to Barred Owl management.”
“You hear that?” whispers David Wiens. He fiddles with a remote control and a male Barred Owl caterwaul—a cackle not unlike that of a circus clown who’s huffed helium—pours through the fog from a speaker at our feet. A moment later, a fluting sound rolls back up the forested drainage. It’s a female Barred Owl. She calls again, nearer now. Suddenly, a whitish shape arrows from the bushes high into a Douglas-fir. I can’t distinguish her silhouette from the foliage until her head swivels in that owlish, Linda Blair way.
Had she landed closer, we would be able to see just how alike and how different she is from a Spotted Owl: similar size, but larger; similar brown coloring, but lighter, with streaks down her breast instead of spots. Barred and Spotted owls belong to the same genus and occasionally interbreed. And though Wiens admires the Barred Owl’s versatility and intelligence, if circumstances were slightly different, he might shoot her with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Wiens, a USGS biologist, and Katie Dugger are leading a federal Barred Owl removal experiment launched in 2013. Dressed in a navy raincoat with a beanie propped behind his ears, Wiens’ lean face has a heaviness that suggests the tremendous difficulty of his job. Over the next few years, field crews under his supervision will kill around 1,700 Barred Owls in four study areas scattered across the Northern Spotted Owl’s range—including this one, in Oregon’s Coast Range.
“I’ve studied raptors my whole career,” Wiens says. “I never imagined I’d end up doing anything like this.”
Even so, he recognizes the need. Where past studies have relied on correlations, this experiment will provide definitive answers about how Barred Owls are affecting their dwindling cousins—and, potentially, entire ecosystems.
“It’s important to know what those impacts are before, 10 years from now, we have quiet forests because this invasive predator cleaned everything out,” Wiens says.
Barred Owl is bigger than Spotted Owl, and is lighter and streakier. Both species are in the Strix genus. Photo by Glenn Bartley/Minden Pictures.
The decision to make the experiment deadly wasn’t easy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studied multiple approaches and tapped a bioethicist and more than 40 stakeholders to navigate the treacherous moral ground involved. In the end, the nonlethal options didn’t appear feasible or humane. Translocating Barred Owls would exacerbate the Spotted Owls’ dilemma elsewhere and might still kill Barred Owls. Storing them in prolonged captivity would make it impossible to return them to the wild, and only a few zoos and raptor centers expressed interest in providing permanent homes.
The animal advocacy groups Friends of Animals and Predator Defense have sued, arguing that the approach violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But otherwise, the experiment—calibrated to ensure a quick kill, affecting a tiny fraction of the Pacific Northwest Barred Owl population, and carried out only when pairs aren’t raising young—appears to have garnered broad, if uncomfortable, backing.
“We really wrestled with the ethics of controlling one species to benefit another, but there was only one alternative we thought was scientifically credible enough to go ahead and conditionally support,” says Chris Karrenberg, Seattle Audubon’s former Conservation Committee chair. “Still, to support landscape-style management of Barred Owls is a different issue.”
Results from a five-year study in northern California on timberlands belonging to the Green Diamond Resource Company are promising. Lead investigator Lowell Diller found that, within days of Barred Owl removal, Spotted Owl pairs he hadn’t seen in years reappeared on historic nest sites. According to Dugger’s demographics study incorporating his data, Green Diamond’s treatment areas are the only place where Northern Spotted Owl population trends look positive, growing by an estimated 3 percent annually.
Similar findings in the larger federal experiment, however, would raise thorny management questions.
“We would have to do it forever and on fairly large areas to actually have an effect,” points out Forsman. “And that’s just not going to happen.”
Only after the experiment is done will the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make a decision about whether to undertake that approach, says the agency’s removal project coleader, Robin Bown: “In the end, we may choose not to do anything. But this way, we’ll know how effective removal is. And how costly.”
Diller says even temporary relief from Barred Owls could have benefits: “Every decade that we buy for Spotted Owls increases the chance that they will adapt to this new threat and buys time for us to look for more palatable management options.”
For coexistence to be possible, preserving remaining habitat may now be more important than ever. Wiens says further forest fragmentation in the face of the Barred Owl onslaught will only hasten the Spotted Owl’s decline: “The long-term issue continues to be habitat loss. The more loss there is, the greater the competitive pressure becomes.”
And it appears that the vast networks of habitat set aside in the 1990s aren’t enough.
The Northwest Forest Plan
The Northwest Forest Plan was always a long game. Its creators anticipated it would be several decades before reserve forests grew back enough to begin offsetting ongoing habitat loss from logging and wildfire elsewhere. As new threats became evident, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 recommended extending protections to more forest and as many occupied Spotted Owl territories as possible. A year later, it designated 9.6 million acres as “critical habitat” necessary for the species’ recovery, which can open the door to additional land-use restrictions. Although much of that fell inside existing reserves, it also included forest that had been open for logging.
That hit a sore spot: lands under the Northwest Forest Plan have produced significantly less lumber than predicted, thanks to lawsuits and regulations that prevented clearcuts, as well as low Congressional appropriations and the vagaries of the timber market.
For their part, environmentalists worry that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t being protective enough. For example, its 2011 Northern Spotted Owl recovery plan emphasizes forest thinning to insulate owl habitat against wildfire. But Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the nonprofit Geos Institute and former member of federal Spotted Owl Recovery Team, says thinning may cause near-term harm to Spotted Owls by reducing prey and destroying more habitat than it saves. The species, DellaSala says, “is actually quite resilient to forest fires.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized a post-fire salvage logging project in the Klamath National Forest in northern California that will cause the incidental take, or death, of 37 nesting pairs of Spotted Owls. The American Bird Conservancy strenuously urged federal agencies to reconsider and be more cautious with projects in Spotted Owl habitat.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. Forest Service and BLM update the land-use plans that fall under the Northwest Forest Plan, nobody seems happy. The 1994 version featured tight coordination between the two agencies, but this time BLM is developing its own plan. Most of its draft proposals make the protected reserves bigger, raising the ire of timber companies and affected counties. BLM also proposes to ramp up clearcutting elsewhere, eliminate the Survey and Manage program, and shrink forest buffers along waterways, thus riling environmentalists.
BLM project manager Mark Brown says his agency is obligated to provide a sustained timber yield from its lands in western Oregon. So it’s trying to minimize conflicts through a sort of zoning. The larger reserve network captures virtually all of the old growth, which in theory negates the need for Survey and Manage and frees up timber harvest areas to provide more reliable sales.
That doesn’t assuage environmentalists’ concerns: “Expansion of the reserve system is a net positive,” says Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator at Oregon Wild. But loopholes may undermine those protections, he says, and they “don’t justify elimination of stream protections and Survey and Manage while forests in reserves are still recovering from decades of overcutting.”
The BLM anticipates that its final plan will be out in April 2016. The Forest Service recently completed a series of listening sessions and is now compiling a scientific review of the Northwest Forest Plan, with the aim of beginning revisions by early 2018.
As the battle over federal lands heats up, it’s unclear whether state and private forests will play an expanded role in Spotted Owl recovery. Little habitat is left there—the Northwest Forest Plan, with its federal lands focus, had the side-effect of increasing the intensity of logging on state and private lands, where the rules are weaker and the Endangered Species Act holds far less sway. There are some incentive-based programs enlisting private landowners in California and Washington to manage for owls, but in Oregon there’s been virtually no buy-in.
Some conservation groups such as Seattle Audubon have lobbied to change the Spotted Owl’s federal listing status from “threatened” to “endangered” to afford the owls more protection. That change, currently being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would increase the scrutiny of projects that impact owls on federal land or require federal permits. But agency Northern Spotted Owl specialist Betsy Glenn says that it won’t alter actual species management on the ground very much.
What Does The Future Hold?
retreated into marginal habitat to nest for a year. Then they disappeared and researchers were unable to find them. Photos by Terray Sylvester.
Back on the Tyee, Janice Reid pulls the truck onto a hilltop and points out the severe demarcation of a section line between thickly forested BLM land and logged private land—a pattern that repeats across the ridgelines to the horizon. That clearcut used to have a nest tree, she tells me. Oregon forestry rules allowed it to be cut down because Spotted Owls hadn’t used it in 10 years. Before chainsaws tore through, Reid found a Barred Owl pair in the spot.
“Now they’re gonna find some other Spotted Owl site to occupy,” she says, “and push another Spotted Owl pair out.”
Reid is silent as we return to the upper bound of the BLM grove where we began our day. After we park, I follow her down the moss-covered slope, ducking branches until the forest opens into a trunk-pillared atrium. She calls back to me that she’s found one of the nest trees—a Douglas-fir. A metal tag marks the year Spotted Owls made it their home: 2004. Twenty yards farther, another reads 1991. Under the circumstances, they have a dark finality, like the dates on headstones.
“I used to be able to walk in here and not do any hooting and I’d just look up and spot ‘em,” Reid says, craning her neck, as if what we’ve been searching for might suddenly appear. “I haven’t given up hope.”
Still, she adds, maybe it’s like the USGS’s Katie Dugger said in her presentation: “If you haven’t seen a Spotted Owl in the wild, I suggest you go out and do so.”