Two dead barred owls lay in the back of a pick-up truck.

Shooting Barred Owls is controversial, but studies show their removal can help threatened Spotted Owls rebound. Photo: Morgan Heim

News

It’s the Moment of Truth for Saving the Northern Spotted Owl

Preventing the Pacific Northwest icon’s extinction calls for aggressive intervention, including killing another owl species. Will we act fast enough?

Night hangs over the Hoopa Valley Reservation. Stars spill toward the evergreen horizon as Mark Higley, a wildlife biologist for the Hoopa Valley Tribe, places a speaker on an unpaved road. Soon a recorded bird call—Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?—tumbles down the Northern California valley. A few minutes later, the faintest of replies. These hoots slowly build as the Barred Owl draws closer, bracing for a turf war, until the calls are almost on top of one another, on top of Higley, filling the entire night.

Then a handsome young male materializes in a copse of hardwoods, calling expectantly. Higley points a 12-gauge shotgun at the dark-eyed bird, eponymous horizontal bars resplendent on its upper breast, and the crack that follows shatters the air. Wings splayed, the Barred Owl lingers a moment before gravity prevails.

The digital owl continues to call from the speaker, and before long another voice resonates through the woods: a female. The second owl swoops up the valley like an echo, and Higley reprises this sober scene. Call, aim, blast, fall. Tufts of down float across the road like moths.

A Northern Spotted Owl perches on a branch in a forest.
Decades of logging old-growth habitat have left the Northern Spotted Owl vulnerable to newer threats. Photo: Morgan Heim

After placing the dead male in the truck bed, Higley smooths the bird’s neck feathers—a movement at once quick and gentle. He does not enjoy killing owls. But he tries to extract as much purpose from it as possible: swabbing their microbes, drawing their blood, collecting their stomach contents, anything that might be of use to science. He has been sending the bodies to museums and universities, but the birds are saturating collections like they are saturating Northwest forests. “Now my freezers are packed full of birds I can’t get rid of,” he says. “Eventually I’ll have to start burying them.”

Higley performs this heavy task night after night as part of a broader effort to save another raptor, the Northern Spotted Owl. A polarizing icon of the Pacific Northwest, the Spotted Owl captured the national spotlight during the so-called Timber Wars of the 1980s and ’90s that pitted loggers against newly minted environmental activists. The bird’s 1990 listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) reverberated through the region and reshaped forest management. Yet scientists say it is now spiraling dangerously close to extinction.

Named for its cloak of white marks, the Northern Spotted Owl—one of three subspecies, along with the California and Mexican Spotted Owls—dwells in mature, structurally complex forests stretching from Northern California into British Columbia. While Timber War tensions may have cooled, loggers still prize the girthy trees that buttress this ecosystem. And two new threats have emerged: the explosive growth of Barred Owls, which have expanded westward into Spotted Owl territory where they’re considered invasive, outcompeting the smaller bird and vacuuming up prey; and catastrophic wildfires, worsened by climate change and historical forest management practices, that could suddenly wipe out those owls that are left.

“These things are all intersecting in a way that dramatically increases the challenges we’re facing,” says Bob Sallinger, director of conservation for Portland Audubon, one of several groups that sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service more than three decades ago to get the bird on the endangered species list. “The Spotted Owl is in a significantly more dire situation than when it was initially listed.”

The U.S. Forest Service’s best estimate is that between 3,000 and 5,200 Northern Spotted Owls remain on federal lands. An analysis in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California last year found that between 1995 and 2018, Spotted Owl populations in many areas shrank by at least 65 percent. In some places where the owls used to number in the hundreds, researchers could find only a single bird, if any. “The populations are really at a tipping point right now,” says Alan Franklin, the study’s lead author and a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center. “Something has to be done quickly.”

Paul Henson, who led the FWS recovery program for the bird until his retirement in June, says the situation calls for action on multiple fronts: Preserve the best remaining habitat, control the Barred Owl, and manage forests to avoid the most serious wildfires. But progress on some points has been sluggish. And despite a 2020 acknowledgment from the FWS that the threatened subspecies should now qualify as endangered, the Trump and Biden administrations both declined to change its status, citing “higher-priority actions” for other species.

So, three decades after Time splashed the handsome nut-brown bird across its cover, an unsettling question emerges: Will we rise to the challenge in time to save the Northern Spotted Owl?

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he cathedral-like forests where Spotted Owls nest and hunt under a closed canopy are vestiges of an ancient Pacific Northwest. Stewarded by first peoples since time untold, these bountiful lands have brought forth incredible biodiversity that makes the spectacular routine, including cedars 15 feet across and redwoods 300 feet high. Around the mid-19th century, European settlers began to more aggressively fell such giants, and the transformation of the forests began.

The timber industry soon dominated the regional economy. After World War II, having thinned private timberlands of their most valuable trees, logging companies turned their new gasoline-powered chain saws toward federal forests. Back then, the Forest Service viewed trees as crops ready for harvest and underestimated the old-growth ecosystem’s value. When the logging trucks arrived, the agency opened its gates. Timber harvests increased throughout the 1960s and ’70s, putting the industry on a crash course with the emerging environmental movement.

Meanwhile, scientists arrived at two key realizations. First, old-growth forests—those around 150 years and older—were in fact immensely productive, diverse ecosystems. Second, a rare owl subspecies was closely associated with them. Throughout the 1980s activists took to the courts to challenge timber sales and even put their bodies between trees and chain saws, but habitat essential to the Northern Spotted Owl and other wildlife continued to topple. By 1987, as timber harvests on public lands reached an all-time peak, concerned environmental groups decided to use a new legal tool to compel action: Portland Audubon, Seattle Audubon Society, and others petitioned the FWS to add the owl to the endangered species list.

It took lawsuits and another three years for the agency to finally list the bird as threatened and then a judge’s intervention to enforce its protection. In 1991 the first of several court orders had a dramatic, immediate effect, pausing new timber sales. But the restrictions arrived just as globalization and a souring economy were straining the lumber industry. Its supporters began sporting T-shirts with the motto “Save a logger, eat an owl.” Franklin recalls being chased by vehicles and shot at in the dark while studying owls in a logging community. “Things did get ugly,” he says.

Tensions boiled over, surging beyond this mossy corner of the country. In 1993 President Clinton convened a forest summit in Portland, Oregon, where he and his cabinet listened to timber executives, scientists, activists, and others. The eventual outcome, the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, was a milestone, outlining the first federal, landscape-scale environmental policy across the region, agencies, and species. “From an ecological and a conservation perspective, the Northwest Forest Plan, in my opinion, has been a tremendous success,” Henson says.

Even so, timber companies have chafed at the plan’s restrictions on how much they can cut, and legal challenges over logging levels continue to this day. One major battleground has been over how much land the FWS considers critical habitat—basically, the places deemed essential to the bird’s survival. Anytime the federal government undertakes, funds, or permits activities that may affect that habitat, such as logging or road construction, it must ensure the actions will not lead to the owl’s extinction or permanently hobble its recovery.

Critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl has been a political football ever since it was first designated in 1992, says Susan Jane Brown, senior attorney and wildlands program director with the Western Environmental Law Center. In 2012, the FWS—better understanding the threats to the bird’s survival—upped the designation by almost 40 percent to nearly 9.6 million acres. In 2021 Trump-appointed officials in the Department of the Interior slashed the extent of critical habitat by 3.4 million acres—despite Henson warning such an action would lead to “the eventual extinction” of the subspecies. The Biden administration later reversed that decision, though it excluded roughly 200,000 acres in Oregon related to the settlement of a timber industry lawsuit.

Given the bird’s perilous position, Brown says federal land managers should halt all commercial logging in its critical habitat that isn’t aimed at restoring forest health. Her organization is filing lawsuits on behalf of conservation groups against Bureau of Land Management timber sales and logging plans. “I cannot believe we are fighting over critical habitat still,” she says. “If you take that political football off the board, you can get down to brass tacks about how we restore and manage the forest. And then what do we do about Barred Owls?”

Since the early 20th century, Barred Owls—perhaps aided by warming boreal forests, settlers planting corridors of trees across the Great Plains, or both—have ventured from their eastern home north through Canada and back south along the Pacific coast. There, the bird’s broad diet gives the larger, aggressive interloper another advantage, enabling it to occupy smaller territories than the Spotted Owl, which eats only tree-dwelling rodents.

Spotted Owls wouldn’t be as vulnerable to the invasive species had people not logged so much old-growth habitat, Sallinger says. To some observers, killing wild animals is an unacceptable answer to those past mistakes. “But it’s even more unacceptable to let a species go extinct,” Sallinger says. “The highest priority needs to be placed on preventing the extinction of the Northern Spotted Owl—including lethal control of the Barred Owl.”

On the left half of a diptych, Keith Hamm, wearing a hard hat and binoculars, leans against a pickup truck. On the right, a hand holds a smartphone with a map that indicates several points.
From left: Keith Hamm, Green Diamond’s conservation planning manager; Green Diamond map of important trees for Spotted Owls. Photos: Morgan Heim

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eith Hamm steps out of his truck off an old state highway shrouded in low-hanging fog. Hamm, conservation planning manager for the family-owned timber firm Green Diamond Resource Company, peers through his binoculars downslope where two streams meet among towering tan oaks and cedars. His colleague Desiree Early Dorvall, a soft-spoken wildlife biologist, quickly loads snow-white mice into a container made from a modified PVC pipe. She slides the plastic tube, now squeaking softly, into a pocket of her backpack and begins to trek with Hamm in search of Spotted Owls.

While its business is cutting down trees, Green Diamond’s state- and federally approved habitat conservation plans require it to balance logging with environmental protection. The company clear-cuts some of its property but practices selective harvesting on one-quarter of its 385,000 acres in northwest California to protect streams and wildlife. On parts of its land, from 2009 to 2014 Green Diamond led the first experiment in removing Barred Owls to observe whether Northern Spotted Owls rebounded. They did: Spotted Owl survival climbed roughly 8 percent and reproduction ticked up. Not only did the population on the company’s land stop shrinking—it grew.

But this limited removal program was not enough to stanch the flow of Barred Owls into the forests of coastal California. Where Hamm and Early Dorvall are hiking, Spotted Owls were once as reliable a presence as the marine fog that rolls in to bathe the region’s iconic redwoods. Pairs routinely took up residence and raised their young in the hollows of its aged trees. “Then, all of a sudden, at a site that was really consistent,” Early Dorvall says, “they stopped reproducing.” Before long, a lone male was the only one responding to the humans’ hopeful hoots. Then, in 2018, nothing.

The company resumed Barred Owl removals in 2020, this time across all its property, and last year a pair of Northern Spotted Owls successfully reproduced at this spot. Today the Green Diamond scientists have hiked in to check on them. Where the canopy forms a verdant ceiling held aloft by trees rising like pillars, Early Dorvall lets out a hollow whistle, its pitch rising sharply at the end. She’s mimicking the contact calls that Spotted Owls use to keep tabs on one another. Obligingly, a male and female soon reply with haunting four-note songs. Catching sight of one in a cedar’s branches, the biologist kneels among the damp sword ferns, plucks a white mouse from the PVC tube, and places it atop a long stick where it sits practically motionless—live bait for a hungry owl. She holds it out, waiting.

A Northern Spotted Owl, only part of its body shown, perches on a branch with its sharp talons.
The signature white markings of a Northern Spotted Owl. Photo: Morgan Heim

Soon a dark-eyed owl arrives on silent wings and collects the bait. Hooting softly from a nearby perch, mouse now dead in his talons, the male calls to his mate. Then he swoops in beside her, offering a freshly caught meal. The owls wear leg bands that Green Diamond scientists use to track individual birds’ lives, reproduction, and deaths, creating detailed demographic histories for certain areas. And observing what the birds do with the bait—devour it in hunger, save it for later, share it to woo a mate—allows the biologists to glean courtship and nesting information.

In some places, however, Spotted Owls are so few, or so wary of their invasive cousins, that this established monitoring method is losing its scientific value. It also pulls females away from their nests, potentially exposing the adults and their young to attacks from predators. That’s why Damon Lesmeister, who leads the Forest Service’s Northern Spotted Owl monitoring program, is spearheading a shift toward a lighter touch across a broader expanse: bioacoustics monitoring.

Lesmeister expects the program, which uses autonomous recorders to capture Spotted Owl calls, to soon hit 3 million hours of recordings per year. Advances in machine learning and computer processing allow his team to analyze this vast audio archive to detect the bird’s presence. By 2023 he aims to have these devices listening for Spotted Owls at randomly selected sites across some 25 million acres of federal lands, from the Canadian border to San Francisco. The project is also incorporating camera traps in coastal Oregon to give researchers a better understanding of the birds’ environment.

But this method also comes with a trade-off: It cannot provide the rich detail about populations and behaviors that can be gleaned from drawing the birds from the canopy. “A lot of biologists are concerned whether this is really going to provide the necessary information to adequately monitor the small populations of Spotted Owls that are left,” says the USDA’s Franklin.

An hour’s drive east of Green Diamond’s damp coastal redwoods, the Hoopa Valley Tribe also relies on baiting for the habitat conservation plan it must follow in order to log pockets of its drier, Douglas fir–studded reservation. Here, Higley and the tribe’s wildlife crew leader, Anthony Colegrove, watch as a male, a white mouse in its yellow beak, perches near the top of a crownless tree. “He’s hooting and looking at the broken top, so that’s probably where she’s nesting,” says Colegrove, a tribal member dubbed the “owl whisperer” for his uncanny ability to call in Spotted Owls, a skill honed since childhood.

Colegrove says he wouldn’t have recognized nesting behavior before Higley started removing Barred Owls in 2013 as part of a federally funded experiment, separate from Green Diamond’s, to measure the effects on the native birds. Back then nests were scarce. “Spotted Owls wouldn’t even hoot,” Colegrove remembers. “It was pretty bad.” Since then, monitoring has documented a 3 percent increase in Spotted Owl adult survival and rebounding reproduction.

The success of the Hoopa’s and Green Diamond’s efforts helped inform the federal government’s own Barred Owl removals on public lands from 2015 to 2021. An analysis of data from all three, published in July 2021, revealed the stark difference removing the invading owls can make. Where Barred Owls were taken off the landscape, Northern Spotted Owl populations quickly stabilized. Where they remained, Spotted Owls continued to freefall, their already low numbers dropping 12 percent each year.

Equipped with these findings, the FWS is preparing to write a new management strategy to control Barred Owls in the range of the Northern and California Spotted Owl subspecies. The agency initiated public review in July but says the earliest the strategy could be completed is the end of 2023. For now, just a few land managers continue to shoot the invasive owls. Higley and others worry what this delay will mean for Spotted Owls’ survival. With numbers dropping so fast, every unaddressed threat shoves their prospects in the wrong direction.

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ate in the morning on August 16, 2020, a fire began to burn through the ancient, and usually damp, conifers of Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. One of many Pacific Northwest blazes that year, the Beachie Creek Fire would eventually scorch nearly 200,000 acres, claim five lives, and devastate small towns. Northern Spotted Owls also suffered during that smoke-choked summer, losing vast swaths of prime habitat.

Fire has always been a presence in the bird’s habitat, but today it is morphing into something more worrisome. An overheated climate is making even temperate rain forests like the Willamette, whose massive old trees are typically fire-resistant, susceptible to more frequent megafires. “These fires have taken out scores and scores of Spotted Owl sites over the years,” says Henson. That’s true even for more modest blazes, such as the one that burned 3,000 acres of the Hoopa reservation and an adjacent national forest in 2009.

Experts say land managers, including the federal government, can take proactive steps to reduce wildfire impacts. That does not mean aggressively logging healthy forests, Henson stresses; what’s needed is targeted thinning and prescribed burning. Fortunately, more funding for such efforts is on the way. Last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act passed this summer together will funnel billions of dollars into addressing the risks and impacts of wildfires.

Three decades since the effort to save the Northern Spotted Owl began, it can feel at times like a lost cause. The bird’s numbers keep sliding while threats keep rising. To make matters worse, more hazards are surfacing: About half of the Barred Owls that researchers remove from Northwest forests test positive for anticoagulant poisons used to kill rodents, including at illegal marijuana farms in national forests. That suggests that Spotted Owls, too, are being poisoned through their prey.

In the top photo of a diptych, biologist Brandon Henson checks the batteries in a trail camera tied to a tree. In the bottom photo, the hand of a person sitting on the ground touches a recording unit beside them.
From top: Brandon Henson, a U.S. Forest Service biologist, checks a trail camera used to observe Spotted Owls in Oregon; Autonomous recording units are a low-impact tool for monitoring the birds. Photos: Morgan Heim

In some ways the Pacific Northwest is a different place than it was when the subspecies was listed as threatened: Today the region has more workers in the tech and outdoor recreation industries than in logging, and few of them personally experienced the Timber Wars. “I think many of those folks think that that’s over and that the owl is doing just fine,” says Brown, the environmental lawyer. Even among her devoted community of Northern Spotted Owl enthusiasts, the fight today is “nowhere near the tenor or ferocity that it was back in the ’90s.”

Is saving the Northern Spotted Owl, as the ESA compels the federal government to do, still possible? “The current prognosis is grim, especially in the state of Washington,” says Lesmeister. Shooting Barred Owls, while effective in certain conditions, is not a silver bullet. He expects the native bird to become locally extinct in some places in the next decade.

Still, he and others insist there’s room for optimism. Provided with healthy habitat and relief from Barred Owls, Spotted Owls can rebound. The Northwest Forest Plan, a document with real regulatory teeth and a century-long vision, has largely succeeded in halting the devastation of the forests the owls need. And with every passing year, those trees are aging into old growth.

At the same time, political leaders and the public increasingly seem to recognize the value of those mature forests, particularly as a climate solution. President Biden, for example, issued an executive order on Earth Day this year to inventory and potentially preserve old-growth habitat on federal lands. And while such woods have generally had weaker safeguards on state and private property, that may be changing. Oregon governor Kate Brown signed a bill in April that increased protections for the Elliott State Forest, where Northern Spotted Owls and Marbled Murrelets—a seabird that the state elevated last year from threatened to endangered—nest among 82,000 acres of mature and old-growth stands. Brown signed separate legislation in May to strengthen protections for riparian habitat in a law that affects more than 10 million acres of private forests. Both measures arose from negotiations that brought timber companies together with Portland Audubon and other conservation groups—a type of cooperation hard to imagine at the height of the Timber Wars. “I look at the last year or two as some of the most important progress on state lands we’ve made in a very long time,” Sallinger says.

Even in places where Northern Spotted Owls are still navigating clearcuts, like on the coastal timberlands Green Diamond manages, the birds are proving resilient. In the twilight of second-growth redwoods and Douglas fir, Early Dorvall and Hamm watch as another male they had been trying to lure regurgitates the bone and fur remains of his latest meal. When a female Spotted Owl joins the scene, the pair of birds exchange strings of excited hoots and suddenly, briefly, fuse their bodies. Early Dorvall exclaims, “Oh, they’re copulating!” Over her many years of monitoring the birds, it’s a scene she’s never before witnessed. In a few short months, fluffy chicks may fill this pair’s nest and brighten the bird’s prospects. Oblivious to the high stakes, the two imperiled owls keep chittering and whistling to each other as the light fades.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 issue as “Desperate Measures.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

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