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Northwest disappearing act

The number of spotted owls is dwindling. Some experts think an aggressive cousin, not logging, is to blame.

December 01, 2008|Kim Murphy | Murphy is a Times staff writer.

PORT ANGELES, WASH. — Scott Gremel makes his way swiftly and surely up the steep trail, across a frigid stream, through the colossal stands of hemlock and Douglas fir.

On the ridgeline, thousands of feet above where he left his truck on the valley floor, Gremel points the antenna on his tracking device toward the next valley. A faint ping responds, the radio tag of a single barred owl that has laid claim to two entire valleys.

As Gremel made his way from the Olympic National Park visitor center a few miles back, he pointed at several locations where a much more famous -- and more reclusive -- bird once nested. Nothing.

Gremel has traipsed through these trees since the spring snow melt, calling out the telltale whoop-woo-hoo-hoooo of the northern spotted owl. He hasn't been able to find more than two mating pairs in this 11-square-mile region. Once, there were five.

Across their entire range in Washington, Oregon, Northern California and British Columbia, there are thought to be fewer than 5,000 northern spotted owls left. In the dense forests of the Olympic Peninsula last year, spotted owls were found in 19 of the 54 sites they had once populated. Their numbers have declined by a third since the 1990s, when old-growth logging across the Pacific Northwest came to a virtual halt in an effort to protect their habitat.

The declines have been so persistent -- averaging 4% a year -- that a growing number of scientists have come to think the most immediate culprit is not logging but the aggressive barred owl, which has crept into the West Coast forests from Canada over the last few decades.

Bigger, more fertile and with an appetite less finicky than its threatened cousin, the barred owl has taken over in forest after forest, experts say -- claiming spotted owls' nests in the warmer, lower elevations.

"This barred owl pair showed up right at a nest tree where we'd had the same male spotted owl who'd been banded in '92," Gremel said. "He was last seen the year right before [the newcomers] showed up. Then this spring, a park visitor found a dead spotted owl in the campground here."

There was no way of knowing whether the old owl had left of its own accord, had been driven out or simply died of old age -- but it was troubling, he said.

Now, as the spotted owl continues to decline, the federal government is taking what many conservationists say is the worst step possible: reopening more of the bird's forests to logging.

In what is likely to be one of the final environmental battles of the Bush administration, 18 environmental groups filed motions in federal court last week to block a massive remapping of federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. Proposals by the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which officials hope to have in place by the end of the year, would open up for logging large tracts that had been set aside as breathing space for the owls -- nearly 1.8 million acres.

The moves amount to a wholesale reworking of the Northwest Forest Plan. The 1994 compromise -- brokered by the Clinton administration to end the timber wars of the Pacific Northwest -- set up a system of protections for the region's old-growth forests, allowing them to be thinned but not cut down.

Those classic groves, all but about 20% of which have been lost to logging and development, are essential not only for the spotted owl but the marbled murrelet (a threatened small seabird) and a host of other plants and animals whose survival is considered a barometer of the planet's ecological health.

The management plan has been a lightning rod for blame in a paralyzed logging industry; it turned the spotted owl into a much-maligned poster child for closed mills and economic ruin.

Timber industry officials say the compromise never worked. A combination of environmental lawsuits and inadequate federal appropriations for timber management, they said, resulted in lumber mills getting little more than a quarter of the 1.1 billion board feet a year of timber they had been promised, and the Northwest's forests were left overgrown, bug-infested and dangerously prone to fires.

But conservationists say the latest attempt by the Bush administration to dole out owl habitat to the timber industry marks a blatant power play by the government's top political advisors -- over the advice of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists.

"Saying the Northwest Forest Plan hasn't done much for owls by protecting all that habitat, so we should protect less habitat, doesn't make any sense at all," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice. "The science has said we need as much habitat protected as we possibly can, and we likely need to protect much more habitat in light of the uncertainties of climate change."

Ross Mickey of the American Forest Resource Council called the remapping "a small step in the right direction. There should be millions of acres taken out of what they say is critical habitat."

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