The Spotted Owl’s Checkered Past   Page 1 Page 3
"These old forests in the Pacific Northwest were thought to be of little value to anyone but loggers not more than thirty years ago. People were simply unaware that the spotted owls were out there," said Eric Forsman, a research wildlife biologist with the United States Forest Service. Forsman’s graduate work in 1972 is part of the reason people are aware of the owls today. He and researchers at Oregon State University discovered that a majority of spotted owls reside in old areas of the forest where the trees are typically more than 100 years old.

Spotted owls evolved over eons to thrive in the old-growth conifer forests. Forsman said everything about their lives depends on these types of forests. They build their nests in large tree cavities and on thick branches in dense tree canopies. The owls hunt for animals found in abundance in the decaying logs and leaves of the old forest. They even developed coloring that camouflages them in the shadows created by the big trees. When the old forest is chopped down, the birds have trouble nesting and feeding their young, Forsman said.

  old growth forest
The predominant ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest is temperate rain forest. Mature forests are characterized by a full range of tree ages, from saplings to decomposing logs. This diversity in age results in a complex canopy and a layer of detritus on the forest floor. (Photograph courtesy U.S Fish and Wildlife Service)
By the early 1970s, logging companies had already reduced the old forest in the Pacific Northwest by 85 to 90 percent. "After making the discovery about the owls, we looked at the area planned for harvest by logging companies in the future and noticed that a majority of it was the remaining old forest - spotted owl habitat," said Forsman. "Fifty percent of the area belonged to the government."

Over the next decade news of the owl’s plight spread. Eventually concern for the owl caught the attention of the media and mainstream environmental groups. Clashes erupted between environmentalists and loggers, whose livelihood was being threatened. The northern spotted owl practically became the mascot for the environmental movement in this country. Extremist groups even tied themselves to marked trees and damaged logging equipment. "I was amazed to see how the pendulum had swung. It got to the point where you couldn’t even go into the woods to cut down so much as one tree," said Forsman.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the concern for the northern spotted owl official in 1990 when they placed the bird on the Federal Threatened Species List. Little was done about the owls until a year after President Clinton took office. His administration established the Forest Ecosystem Management Team (FEMAT) in 1993. The team was made up of personnel from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the United States Forest Service (USFS), the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and regional universities (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1996).

Together they drew up a plan that reduced future timber harvests on federal property by 80 percent and created a number of guidelines to manage the remaining older forest. One of the primary goals of the plan was to develop a model to determine the well being of spotted owls and their habitat, strewn out across 25 million acres of land in western Oregon, Washington, and Northern California (Bureau of Land Management, 1993).

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clearcut forest
A cheap and effective method of harvesting lumber is to clearcut. Unfortunately, clearcutting destroys the diversity of the forest, leaving habitat unsuitable for the spotted owl even after decades of regrowth.(Photograph courtesy U.S Fish and Wildlife Service)