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Spotted owl recovery plan pits one species against another

Threatened northern spotted owl adult with young (Strix occidentalis caurina.)
Photo by Jim Thrailkill
Threatened northern spotted owl adult with young (Strix occidentalis caurina.)

It’s an icon of the northwest.

With its muted brown feathers and dark eyes, the northern spotted owl doesn’t look all that impressive. But scientists say its survival indicates the health of the entire forest ecosystem. That’s why conservationists want the government to protect more of the old-growth habitat spotted owls prefer.

But a recovery plan for the owl due for release this morning is ruffing feathers.

More than two decades ago, the northern spotted owl was listed by the federal government as a threatened species. But that protection has so far failed to halt the bird’s decline. 

For several decades now, they’ve had competition from a different owl species, which is undermining conservation efforts.

The revised Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan that's due for release this morning (9am PST) is already causing controversy.

Ann Forest Burn is with the American Forest Resource Council, representing the timber industry.

“We do not believe that preserving more and more habitat, which will simply be invaded by the barred owl, is really going to do anything to recover the spotted owl population, ” she says.

Barred owls are more aggressive East Coast cousins of the spotted owl. They’ve taken over in areas where the spotted owl was supposed to come back. So part of the recovery plan is to study the effectiveness of killing barred owls – a practice known as lethal removal.

It’s an issue conservation groups have had to wrestle with … even the revered Audubon Society, the country’s leading protector of birds.

“It is a very tough issue for us," says  Shawn Cantrell, Executive Director of Seattle Audubon. "We had a significant, multi-month internal discussion and debate. ” 

He says they’re supporting selective killing of barred owls as a research tool. But he also says much more needs to be done to restore and preserve old-growth forests.

“Even to this day, there’s areas in this state where you have a spotted owl that is nesting and the tree that the bird nests in – it’s okay to go in and harvest and cut down that stand of trees and the tree with the nest in it, as long as you don’t cut it during the actual nesting season. ”

He says that needs to change - and he hopes the final plan will provide more incentives for private landowners and states, not just federal forests, to preserve spotted owl habitat.


Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to