The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently announced that the California spotted owl will not be listed as an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
After a year of research and consultation with experts, Fish and Wildlife officials determined that the species is not in danger of extinction “throughout all or a significant portion of its historic range” – including older forests throughout the Sierra Nevada, areas of coastal and Southern California, and Baja California, Mexico – “nor is it likely to become so in the foreseeable future,” according to a Nov. 7 press release.
In the Sierra Nevada range, most California spotted owls live within mid-elevation ponderosa pine, mixed-conifer, white fir, and mixed-evergreen forest types, while a handful live in lower elevation oak woodlands of the western foothills, the service said.
Fish and Wildlife was required to submit the 12-month finding in the Federal Register after years of petitionioning by environmental groups to get the species federally listed.
Chad Hanson is the director and principal ecologist of the John Muir Project, a project of the Berkely-based Earth Island Institute, one of the environmental nonprofits that submitted a petition to get the species listed as “threatened.”
According to Hanson, an anti-logging crusader, not granting the California spotted owl ESA protections was a “political decision” by the Trump administration that favors the logging industry and ignores scientific literature.
“We submitted stacks of scientific evidence about the serious threats posed to spotted owls by both mechanical thinning and post-fire logging,” Hanson said. “What we’re seeing is if there’s no post-fire logging, the owls tend to thrive in these areas in part because their small mammal prey base increases after burns.”
Areas burned by high-intensity wildfires are abundant with native shrubs, downed logs and young conifer regeneration – ideal habitat for small mammals, according to Hanson.
“If these areas are not post-fire logged, the owls have more food in the fire areas, and reproduction levels typically go up,” Hanson said. “If post-fire logging happens, occupancy plummets and so does reproduction.”
The primary threats to the California spotted owl, according to the USFWS, are large-scale, high-severity fire; increased tree mortality; drought; effects of climate change; and the invasion of barred owls into the California spotted owl’s range.
Hanson said logging should have been on that list.
By contrast, in the finding submitted in the Federal Register, Fish and Wildlife states that regulated logging activities will protect spotted owl habitat from high-severity wildfires in the long term.
Existing conservation measures will “continue to decrease the negative effects of clearcutting and mechanical thinning,” the finding states. “They will benefit the California spotted owl by maintaining high canopy cover and large trees within owl territories. Further, increased mechanical thinning will help to reduce the risk of large-scale high-severity fire on the landscape.”
The decision was met with relief by logging and fuel reduction proponents in the Sierra Nevada, as the listing would have shut down some active wildfire prevention efforts in the county, according to Jan Bray, a forester and Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team member.
If the species had been federally listed as “threatened” or “endangered,” federal land agencies would be required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on projects on federal lands within California spotted owl range, USFWS Public Affairs Officer Meghan Snow confirmed.
Bray added that a recently proposed listing for the California fisher could also delay fuel reduction work if approved. That proposal is now accepting public comment through Dec. 9, Snow said.
Other species in the Sierra Nevada that are currently under consideration for federal listing include the Sierra Nevada red fox, wolverine, foothill yellow-legged frog, western pond turtle, Kern Canyon slender salamander, Kern Plateau salamander, limestone salamander and the relictual salamander, Snow said.
Protections are still in place for the owl
The Fish and Wildlife decision doesn’t reduce protections that are already in place for the California spotted owl, according to local land managers.
The U.S. Forest Service, for instance, already takes various precautions to protect the species during timber sales, forest health treatments and other land management projects that involve the use of heavy equipment.
Depending on the size of the project and time of year, conservation measures may include owl surveying, enforcing “limited operating periods” for mechanical equipment use, establishing “protected activity centers” (where activities in a 300-acre boundary around spotted owl habitat are subject to rules to limit disturbance) and creating “nest buffers” in areas with active nest sites, according to Ryan Kalinowski, Stanislaus National Forest wildlife biologist.
“We’re trying to seek that balance of allowing fuel reduction to take place to increase sustainability of habitat and reduce fire risk to communities,” Kalinowski said. “A lot of times those go hand in hand, and there is potential for short-term impacts.”
Additionally, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), a large private logging company and landholder in Calaveras County, is subject to its own set of regulations to mitigate impacts to the owl, with oversight from various state agencies.
SPI Community Relations Manager Mark Luster said SPI forestlands are home to some of the highest concentrations of spotted owls in the state, and the company has committed to actions to help conserve the California and Northern spotted owl species.
At present, SPI is pursuing a federal Habitat Conservation Plan for spotted owls, a 50-year commitment to increase potential habitat on its timberlands and change management strategies to be in lockstep with new scientific information on the subject as it is developed, Luster said.
With wildfire being a primary threat to the species, SPI is coordinating with the Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (a nonprofit formed by Congress to conserve fish, wildlife and plant species) and 11 commercial forestland owners to ramp up fuel reduction efforts, Luster said.
Luster added that active even-age management (clear-cutting) forests can create a landscape that provides “a mosaic of forest stands that meet spotted owl needs for nesting, roosting and forage” – a claim that several environmental groups disagree with.
John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC), a Twain Harte-based advocacy group, said that CSERC respects “good intentions” by SPI and the Forest Service to reduce the severity of wildfires on their lands. CSERC, however, does not support clearcuts and logging of large trees on SPI’s private timberlands, “not just because they often wipe out habitat values important to spotted owls, but because they tend to convert diverse forest habitat into much more uniform tree plantations” that impact many forest species, Buckley said.
“Looking at the forest strictly from an environmental perspective, the decision not to list the owl by (USFWS) appears to be a sad outcome,” Buckley said. “But if SPI and the Forest Service take steps to avoid harm to the owl and other closed canopy, old growth forest-dependent species, this may not end up being a significant blow to the long term survival of California spotted owls in the Sierra Nevada region.”