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Northern Spotted Owl

Strix occidentalis caurina

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NORTHERN SPOTTED OWL, Strix occidentalis caurina, Photo by Andy Cripe

The northern spotted owl has been at the center of forest management debate because of its dependence on classic old-growth forest characteristics for roosting, foraging and nesting, its role as an ‘indicator species’ for forest health, and the continual fragmentation and loss of its habitat throughout the Pacific Northwest.  


Northern spotted owls are a medium sized brown owl characterized by a dark brown face with small white spots, and a round face that lacks ear tuffs.  They have concentrated circles of dark brown around each dark brown eye.  They have a yellowish green bill and their legs and feet are fully feathered.


Northern spotted owls are one of three North American spotted owl subspecies.  Their distribution range stretches along the Pacific Coast region from southwest British Columbia to central California. Within this distribution range the northern spotted owl is a non-migratory species that occupies the same home range year-round.  


Each home range is located within contiguous mature or old-growth forests.  They roost high in large diameter trees with multiple canopy layers in areas with high canopy closure and complex structure.  Broken treetops, cavities, platforms abandoned by raptors and squirrels, and mistletoe brooms create preferred nesting sites.  The female scrapes out a shallow depression in the existing debris to form the nest.


Complex canopy structure and high canopy closure also make up northern spotted owls’ preferred foraging habitat.  They tend to avoid recently logged or clearcut forests and crossing brushy areas.  In southwest Oregon and northern California, northern spotted owls, a nocturnal hunter, predate mainly upon red-tree voles, red-back voles, bushy-tailed woodrats, mice, snowshoe hare, brush rabbits and pocket gophers.  They are also known to opportunistically eat birds, amphibians and insects.  Northern spotted owls detect their prey by site or sound, use gliding flight when approaching prey, then pounce and capture prey with their talons.


Photo courtesy of John and Karen Hollingsworth

Northern spotted owls are listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and are an “indicator” species - the health of the northern spotted owl indicates the health of old-growth forest ecosystems.  The primary threats to the northern spotted owl are loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation due to clearcuts or regeneration harvests and even-age forest management.  Urban and suburban expansion, water development, agricultural development, mining, and reservoir development also significantly impact northern spotted owl populations.


If a forest is selectively logged, northern spotted owls may reoccupy an area after 40-100 years if mature forest characteristics are present.  These characteristics are snags, coarse woody debris and large trees with cavities.


The northern spotted owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 and was the center of controversy in forest management in the early 1990s. The spotted owl was at the center of attention as Clinton signed the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, which intended to provide wood products and protect the owl. Unfortunately, a 2004 study by the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon noted, "The most recent analysis we did suggests that overall, the population is declining," said Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist and author on the new report.


According to the study, spotted owl numbers fell about 7.5 percent a year since 1990 in Washington, 2.2 percent in California and 2.8 percent in Oregon.


Overall, declines on federal lands (2.5 percent) were markedly lower than those on state, tribal, and private lands (6.6 percent), which suggest that federal protections may make a difference.


The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling in early August 2004 that could have major implications for the Endangered Species Act, recovery of the northern spotted owl and dozens of timber sales throughout the Pacific Northwest. The case, Gifford Pinchot Task Force v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, questioned whether the Fish and Wildlife Service was adequately protecting the designated "critical habitat" of northern spotted owls as ordered under the Endangered Species Act.


The Endangered Species Act requires designation of habitat critical to the recovery of a plant or animal that is listed as threatened or endangered. KS Wild, along with a coalition of environmental groups, challenged six biological opinions issued by Fish and Wildlife allowing logging within critical habitat for the northern spotted owl on public lands in Oregon and Washington.


Northern Spotted owl fledglings
The court ruled that the Endangered Species Act "was written not merely to forestall the extinction of species ... but to allow a species to recover to the point where it may be delisted." However, federal agencies have been planning timber sales in critical habitat and issuing owl "take permits" for years. These permits allow agencies to proceed with timber sales even though there are documented spotted owls using the area. These "take permits" are essentially "kill permits," allowing the degradation of critical habitat and the killing of spotted owls, both of which are antithetical to the intentions set forth in the Endangered Species Act.


While we await review of the ruling, the implications of this could affect dozens of sales that KS Wild is currently opposing due to proposed logging in spotted owl critical habitat.