Illustration by Elise Fero

Northern Spotted Owls struggle to survive

A local species struggles to survive fires, other owls, habitat loss, and climate change

We are watching as the northern spotted owl rapidly declines in population. With fires, barred owl invasions, climate change, and habitat loss, this local species, protected under the Endangered Species Act, needs help.

Spatial Ecology Professor Ho Yi Wan, who has studied the northern spotted owl for many years, explained the importance of the owl in ecosystems.

“When you’re protecting the habitat of a spotted owl, you’re protecting a lot of the forested habitat which a lot of other species use,” Wan said. “It’s like an umbrella approach, when you protect one species you are also in a way conserving a lot of other species.”

HSU faculty member Jeff Dunk, a member of the environmental science and management department, explained why the owl originally joined the Endangered Species Act.

“It was habitat loss,” Dunk said. “There were huge rates of timber harvesting that happened from post-World War II through the 1980s. And with automation of timber mills and stuff, we just got more and more effective at harvesting trees and then we started to see a response by the owls, that is they weren’t doing as well after a while.”

But regrowing a forest takes time.

“See you can get rid of it really rapidly but it takes a long time to grow back,” Dunk said.

Now, the owl suffers from climate change, fires, and an invasion of the barred owl, as well as continued habitat loss.

“It’s not like they are affecting the spotted owl by itself, no, those things interact and potentially exacerbate whatever negative influence that each impact might have,” Wan said.

Each of those challenges are hard to battle, especially that of climate change.

“Battling climate change requires international collaboration and all countries need to be on board to battle climate change,” Wan said.

The invasive barred owl also provides many problems for the smaller spotted owl. According to the National Park Service, barred owls are taking over nests and food because they are the larger and more aggressive owl. They also invaded the space of the northern spotted owl when they were already suffering from habitat loss.

The National Park Service wrote on their website that they have documented many cases of barred owls moving in to spotted owl territories. Because the species are similar, they can’t always occupy the same territory. Unfortunately, the barred owl issue is quite controversial.

“There’s been some experiments of killing barred owls in some areas and not others and seeing what happens and we do see a response by the spotted owls,” Dunk said. “They survive better when the barred owls are removed and they do a little bit better.”

Dunk understands why it is a difficult topic. Some disagree with this method because it means killing one owl to save another. Either way, something has to be done.

“If we don’t do anything about barred owls the vast majority of spotted owls we have now won’t exist,” Dunk said. “And I don’t mean those individuals, I mean within their geographic range spotted owls will be functionally extinct from much of it.”

The northern spotted owl has a recovery plan. According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, this plan includes limiting the area where people can cut trees and take away its habitat, forest restoration, managing the barred owl, and monitoring the northern spotted owl while continuing research of it.

“One way to be a good start is to look at biodiversity and to try to help conserve the biodiversity that we have,” Wan said. “We don’t want to lose any species.”

As individuals, we share information on the species, use public outreach and social media, be careful about starting fires, and learn about the owl and other endangered and threatened species.

“We are all a part of nature, like humans are citizens of the whole ecosystem,” Wan said. “So we should be good citizens within it and as we are taking advantage and taking other resources from nature, we also have the responsibility to be a good start.”

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