PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Conservation groups are decrying a decision by the federal government to not reclassify the northern spotted owl from threatened to endangered — a more severe classification under the Endangered Species Act that signifies it is in peril of extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last week the reclassification of the northern spotted owl was “warranted but precluded,” meaning the reclassification to endangered is warranted, but USFWS won’t take any new actions currently due to higher priority actions taking precedent. The reclassification will be included in the USFWS’s National Listing Workplan, prioritizing workload for listing decisions based on the species and their review of scientific information.

Portland Audubon Conservation Director Bob Sallinger told KOIN 6 News the decision is disappointing in many ways.

A northern spotted owl (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

“First of all, it is confirmation that the spotted owl is moving closer and closer to extinction, that it is now on the brink of extinction and that more does need to be done to recover the species, that the current mechanisms have not been adequate to move this species in the right direction.”

According to a report by the Statesman Journal, northern spotted owls occupied 14,000 territories across the Pacific Northwest in 1993, three years after they were listed as threatened under the ESA. Today, it’s estimated they occupy just 3,000 territories or about one male or breading pair inhabiting each territory.

Sallinger said he thinks listing the spotted owl as endangered would be the next obvious step and that it’s a problem the USFWS declined to do so. He said it speaks to the fact that the agency is apparently so far behind on their listing decisions that there’s now a backlog of other species also in dire straits that are taking higher priority to the spotted owl being listed.

USFWS said a status change from threatened to endangered, called uplisting, would not result in any additional regulatory restrictions under the ESA, nor substantively impact the conservation of spotted owls.

However, Sallinger said uplisting is important because he thinks it would encourage further conservation of the species.

“Uplisting really is a recognition simply of where the owl is at now, that what we have done to date has been insufficient, and that the bird is now on the brink of extinction. And so I think the status should reflect where they’re at, they should be endangered, and we should be expanding our programs to ensure that we can reverse that.”

Another conservation group, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, also slammed the decision, in part laying blame to the current administration under President Donald Trump.

“Fish and Wildlife knows what dire straits the spotted owl’s in but under Trump can’t be bothered to pull it out of its downward spiral into extinction,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the CBD. “What the owl needs is more old-forest habitat and much stronger protections for the forests that are still left after decades of logging. And neither the owls nor the people need another handout to the timber industry.”

Barred owl poses threat to northern spotted owl

In the USFWS release, it stated that the decision was based on “a rigorous scientific report that was peer-reviewed by academic, industry and resource agency experts.” The agency said the primary threat to the survival of the northern spotted owl is competition with the aggressive and invasive barred owl, along with the additional threat posed by “ongoing habitat loss, primarily from wildlife.”

Sallinger agrees that the barred owl “is absolutely a threat” to the species. But he said the original threat that caused spotted owls to be listed as threatened in the first place was loss and fragmentation of old growth habitat, primarily from timber industry engaging in aggressive clear cutting of ancient forests prior to the 1990s. Other species, like the marbled murrelet, saw significant declines, Sallinger said.

The invasive barred owl, which looks similar to the northern spotted owl only bigger, originated from the eastern United States. It’s not totally known how it got to the northwest region, but some theorize it came across the Great Plains of Canada, which were historically burned by Indigenous people, Sallinger said. According to the USFWS, it is believed barred owls began expanding west of the Mississippi around the turn of the 20th century.

A northern spotted owl family (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

“In the last couple centuries, there’s been a lot of tree planting. And the tree planting may have been what allowed the barred owl to hop, skip and jump across the Great Plains of Canada into the Pacific Northwest,” he said

Unlike the northern spotted owl, the barred owl can adapt to a variety of habitats as well, to not only include old growth forest, but urban areas and inner city neighborhoods as well, Sallinger said. In fact, it’s quickly becoming one of the most common urban owls in the Pacific Northwest.

The barred owls also have a much more general diet, whereas the northern spotted owls’ diets are more specialized.

Sallinger said one question we may never have an answer to is whether the northern spotted owl would’ve competed better had it been a healthier species when the barred owl arrived to the Pacific Northwest during about the 1960s and 70s.

“We put them in a situation where they were incredibly vulnerable. It’s very rare that a species arrives and drives another species to extinction in a matter of decades. That doesn’t typically happen,” Sallinger said. “It’s happening here because this species was right on the edge and there were very few left and they were vulnerable.”

According to USFWS, an experiment was initiated in 2013 to test whether the removal of barred owls from northern spotted owl habitat is a feasible management tool to conserve populations of spotted owls. The experiment has so far had promising preliminary results, though the final results are still a few years away, the agency said.

Wildfires, active forest management and the timber harvest industry’s perspective

Wildfires have also proven to be a substantial threat to the northern spotted owl, particularly in 2020 when Oregon faced historic wildfires beginning in early September that burned more than one million acres and destroyed more than 4,000 homes.

According to U.S. Forest Service data, as reported in the Statesman Journal, the fires burned 360,000 acres (more than 560 square miles) of suitable nesting and roosting northern spotted owl habitat in Oregon. Of that, 194,000 acres (more than 300 square miles) are no longer considered viable for the birds.

Sallinger said looking at fire policy will be important for the northern spotted owl’s conservation. He thinks that irresponsible logging practices have contributed to forests being less resilient to fire in their natural state and advocates protecting more forests.

The American Forest Resource Council is a trade association that represents timber industry professionals, such as forest product manufacturers and forestland owners, in a number of western states, including Oregon. The Portland-based organization advocates for active forest management with a focus on sustainable timber harvest.

A pair of northern spotted owls (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

AFRC’s Public Affairs Director, Nick Smith, told KOIN 6 News he thinks such an approach can help address issues like wildfire risk reduction and habitat enhancement, even in the case of the northern spotted owl.

“We definitely think the Fish and Wildlife Service should re-evaluate critical habitat where the species isn’t even found. And where we can use active forest management, not just for sustainable timber harvest, but for fuels reduction. Certainly we’ve worked on projects with the objective of developing suitable habitat for the northern spotted owl,” Smith said.

Smith said millions of acres in federal land have been set aside solely for the species over the last 30 years, during which timber harvest on federal lands have declined well over 80%. But average acreage burned in severe wildfires has more than quadrupled.

“Active management can achieve a number of objectives, often at the same time. And what we think is that lands identified, that have already been identified, especially under the Northwest Forest Plan, for timber harvest, should be actively managed,” Smith said. “We could use tools like thinning and prescribed fire that can help prevent further losses of NSO habitat from catastrophic wildfire.”

Smith said research from Oregon State University supports the notion that fuels management and sustainable timber harvesting can aid in northern spotted owl recovery by reducing the risks of stand-replacing wildfire.

Smith doesn’t dispute the fact that northern spotted owls prefer old growth habitat, but said they also like younger forest to hunt for food.

“Forest management provides the tools that can create those diverse conditions. And we can harvest some timber, too, to support jobs in our rural communities.”

Proposed reduction to northern spotted owl’s critical habitat designation

Earlier this year, USFWS announced a proposal to reduce the designated critical habitat for the northern spotted owl by 204,653 acres or 2% of the 9.6 million acres that were designated for the owl in 2012 in California, Oregon and Washington.

The development was related to a 2018 unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision finding that the ESA does not authorize the government to designate lands as critical habitat unless the species is actually living there. For areas where the species cannot currently survive, even if they had once lived there, it can no longer designate that as critical habitat.

FILE – In this June 1995, file photo a Northern Spotted owl sits on a branch in Point Reyes, Calif. Wildlife officials say the northern spotted owl has been listed under the California Endangered Species Act. The state’s Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously on Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, to add the threatened bird to the list, ending a four-year process by the Environmental Protection Information Center, or EPIC. (AP Photo/Tom Gallagher, File)

The critical habitat reevaluation by USFWS comes after a coalition representing counties, business and labor, of which AFRC is a part, reached an agreement with the agency back in April.

The coalition had brought legal action after USFWS designated 9.5 million acres of mostly federal lands as northern spotted owl critical habitat across Washington, Oregon and California in 2012, 38% more than had been set aside in 1992 following the listing of the spotted owl as threatened. The coalition’s legal action focused on the inclusion of more millions of acres of forests not occupied by the species, including over 1.1 million acres of federal lands designated for active forest management activities in which the owls did not live, according to AFRC.

USFWS’s Regional Director for the Columbia-Pacific Northwest said the proposed reduction of northern spotted owl critical habitat “will allow fuels management and sustainable timber harvesting to move forward while supporting the recovery of the northern spotted owl.”

The proposed exclusions were prepared “under a section of the ESA that allows the Secretary of the Interior to exclude certain areas from critical habitat for economic, national security or other relevant factors so long as such exclusion does not cause the species to go extinct,” a USFWS press release said.

Sallinger said the spotted owl’s move to near the brink of extinction is not a reason to give up saving it, but to increase conservation efforts. Presuming we can sustain spotted owls long enough, he advocates for building bigger and better blocks of habitat where they can find breeding sites, find one another and hopefully withstand the ongoing threats to their species.

“It’s an incredibly cool bird. It’s emblematic of our ancient forests. And its situation reflects how poorly we treated our environment,” Sallinger said. “I think we have an obligation to recognize where it is at, that it is at the brink of extinction. List it as endangered and get to work reversing that situation.”