Spotted owls only recovering in B.C. if logging stops, experts say

A spotted owl looking forward, perched on the end of a tree branch Photo by Jared Hobbs

Canada is down to its last spotted owl. Experts say poor habitat management and logging in B.C. are to blame, so they’re bringing the government to court.

The spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), named for the white spots that decorate its coat of brown feathers, lives in old-growth forests in B.C. and along the western American coast. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada classified the species as endangered in 1986; Canada’s population fell as low as one female in 2022, down from an estimated 500 pairs pre-European contact according to Jared Hobbs, an ecological consultant, in a 2019 expert report for the Wilderness Committee.

Logging’s impacts on the spotted owl

Recently, a B.C. captive breeding program attempted to reintroduce three male owls into the current habitats. The owls were released in August 2022, and they died under uncertain circumstances in May 2023.

Hobbs suspects one succumbed to injuries after being hit by a train in October 2022, while the other two likely died of starvation. This second guess is based on his experience monitoring all remaining young spotted owls in B.C. between 2002 and 2006, when all but one died of starvation. He says this is the result of decades of logging that has cut down livable habitats.

“How can you expect to breed and release spotted owls into a landscape where you have affected conditions so negatively by commercial forestry that the existing population that was there has crashed?” Hobbs says.

When a spotted owl matures, it needs to settle in old-growth trees where large canopies are ideal for foraging. With continued logging of these old-growth trees, Hobbs says young owls have had to fly further, and through clear-cut or urbanized areas, to find the right living conditions, risking starvation and leaving them more exposed to predator attacks.

“It’s a hostile landscape full of competitors and predators which we’ve increased because of logging practices,” he says.

Joe Foy, a long-standing member of the Wilderness Committee, says that increase got worse in the late 2000s. The committee brought the province to court with Ecojustice in 2006, hoping to enact an emergency order that would give the federal government control over the spotted owl forests. Instead, the B.C. government compromised with the federal government, promising to establish a captive breeding program in 2007 and map out forests that needed to be managed.

Foy says the map didn’t go nearly far enough, and it set aside a lot of critical habitats as suitable for logging. He adds that the government focused more on captive breeding than preserving the environment.

The provincial government, in partnership with the federal government and the Indigenous community that cares for B.C.’s last spotted owl, Spuzzum Nation, released an updated action plan in January 2023 to expand managed forests. But Foy thinks it poses a similar issue to the 2006 plan. 

Around 300,000 hectares are included in the new managed map, with substantial areas marked as “core,” meaning the province can’t give companies logging permits without violating the federal Species at Risk Act. Other parts of the area are called “potential,” whose wording may not have the same legal limitations, Foy says.

Hobbs adds that around half the area currently within the boundaries is not suitable for spotted owl repopulation, based on findings in the 2019 expert report. Minister Nathan Cullen, responsible for B.C.’s water, land and resource stewardship, says he and the province’s scientists disagree, though he admits he has only read a summary of the expert report.

The Wilderness Committee has since visited several critical habitats that are currently being logged within the new boundaries, including a “core” area in Chehalis Valley overseen by Western Canadian Timber Products.

“The logging company is doing exactly what it’s allowed to do,” Foy says. “Our issue is with the provincial and federal governments: the province for issuing logging permits, and the federal government for not enforcing the Species at Risk law, which they have the power to do.”

Environmental advocates taking the government to court

The Wilderness Committee and Ecojustice announced June 7 that they’re taking Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Steven Guilbeault, to court. They’re urging Guilbeault to call the emergency order he recommended to cabinet in February 2023, when he raised alarms about the owl’s endangerment.

Guilbeault told cabinet in February that 2,500 hectares of crucial spotted owl habitats near Spuzzum Nation were at high risk of being logged—almost the entire area was approved or is pending approval for logging as of June 2023, according to Foy. Though this makes up less than one per cent of the owl’s habitat, Foy says logging this area would make it unlikely for the spotted owl to recover in B.C.

“It would be like if I got shot with a bullet,” he says. “Most of me would be there, but I wouldn’t work anymore.”

Hobbs says removing any old-growth trees risks reducing the species’ chances of recovery. Cullen neither confirms nor denies that logging is still permitted in these areas, though he claims the current old-growth forests set aside should be enough to hit the province’s target of supporting 125 pairs of spotted owls. The province and Spuzzum Nation have agreed not to release another owl this year, Cullen says, adding that they will try again soon.

“One doesn’t stop trying. Understanding that this was a totally innovative new program, there was a great deal of humility and understanding from our side,” he says.

But Hobbs says if environmental practices can’t be redesigned to accommodate “one of the most studied birds in the world,” there’s little hope for other at-risk animals such as caribou, grizzly bears, or giant salamanders. If we can’t stop logging in the interest of its recovery when the government is legally mandated—if we can’t achieve this for spotted owls—then what hope do we have for everything else?” 

Guilbeault was not available for comment.

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