California Spotted Owl Listing under the Endangered Species Act
This page will be updated with new information concerning efforts to secure protection for the California Spotted Owl under the Endangered Species Act. Additional information, including natural history of the owl and its ecology, as well as information about Forest Service actions concerning the species, can be found on the spotted owl page.
The Forest Service research branch in California, PSW, released the California spotted owl assessment, the most current scientific review of the status of the owl. The results are soon to be published in the General Technical Report format, after the draft has been edited, but you can download the long awaited draft report here. Read more about the Forest Service response to the document, here.
Citation: Gutiérrez, R.J.; Manley, Patricia N.; Stine, Peter A., tech. eds. [In press]. The California spotted owl: current state of knowledge. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.
September 18, 2015
USFS issues 90-day Finding on Petitions to List the California Spotted Owl
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a positive 90-day finding on a petition submitted by Wild Nature Institute and the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute to list the California spotted owl (submitted in December of 2014). A positive 90-day finding indicates that the USFWS believes that substantial scientific or commercial information was provided by the petitioner and that the petitioned action may be warranted. The positive 90-day finding recognized SFL’s petition as well, and will incorporate the information we presented in the 12-month status review. With the issuance of the positive 90-day finding the USFWS opened a 60-day comment period requesting additional scientific and commercial data relevant to the status of the species. According to section 4 of the ESA, within 12 months of receiving a petition with a positive 90-day finding the USFWS is to complete a status review and determine if the petitioned action is warranted. However, this timeline is rarely met by the agency and it is unclear at this time when the USFWS will schedule the completion of the 12-month status review.
Download the notice in the Federal Register here.
August 19, 2015
Sierra Forest Legacy and Defenders of Wildlife File Listing Petition to Protect the California Spotted Owl under Federal Endangered Species Act
Sierra Forest Legacy and Defenders of Wildlife filed a petition on August 19, 2015 with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service requesting protection of the imperiled California spotted owl under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Spotted owls have a close association with important features of old growth forests and strong scientific evidence supports protection due to population declines. Threats to the species include: Forest Service logging, uncharacteristically large and destructive wildfires, large-scale clear-cut logging on private land and the arrival of a non-native invasive competitor, the larger and more aggressive barred owl.
It is essential that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list this imperiled raptor now due to multiple, intensifying threats and the perpetual failure of the U.S. Forest Service to heed warnings from scientists and environmental groups over the past 20 years. One of the most ecologically damaging decisions in Forest Service land management history happened in 2004 when the Bush Administration gutted the earlier Clinton-era 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework. The 2001 Framework expanded the use of low and moderate intensity fire as a management tool and increased protections for large diameter trees, both of which are essential to maintain spotted owl persistence and viability.
More than any other factor, historical and current logging practices and aggressive fire suppression have altered national forests and private lands in ways that have damaged ecosystems and made them increasingly vulnerable to climate change and uncharacteristically large and intense wildfires. California spotted owls have been monitored by wildlife scientists for more than 20 years on three national forests in the Sierra Nevada and all evidence affirms significant population declines. Meanwhile on National Park Service lands, where logging is prohibited and fire is used as a tool to manage fuels, the owl population is stable to increasing. Forest Service managers must heed the warnings from more than 20 years of research and use the best available science to guide needed changes in forest management or they make a mockery of land management planning.
The petition will go through a 90-day review process by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during which time the Service will review the information presented and determine the merit of the petition’s claims that listing is needed. If the 90-day review yields a positive 90-day finding, the Service will initiate a more detailed 12-month status review, seek additional information from scientists and the public, and make a determination to propose listing or not.
The Forest Service took historic steps in 1993 to protect this rare species by ending clear-cut logging and the logging of large old growth trees; and under the Clinton Administration, the Forest Service developed the highly regarded 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework with its science-based management and habitat protection measures. But since 2001, the agency has implemented a series of back-tracking measures and political decisions that have ignored the best available scientific information and have contributed to the decline of California spotted owl.
Summary of Significant Threats to the California Spotted Owl
A 160-year history of selective removal of the largest, ecologically critical and fire resilient old growth trees in the Sierra Nevada
Spotted owls depend on these older trees for nest sites and dense forest cover for protection from predators and the cooler micro-climates this type of forest provides.
The legacy of past “high-grading” of the largest trees since the 1850’s (pictured above) coupled with the era of clear-cutting old-growth has created a lasting ecological tragedy that will take hundreds of years to repair. While this devastating outcome is often word-smithed into more benign sounding terms such as “impacts from past management,” current management under the controversial Bush Administration’s 2004 Sierra Nevada Framework clearly suggests that the Forest Service actions today continue to drive the California spotted owl closer to extinction. (See the table below and Temple et. al. 2014).
The table below compares impacts to owl territories from private land and public land logging and fire since 2006. Disturbance here includes impacts from significant reduction in over-story canopy cover from intensive thinning on Forest Service lands, clear-cutting on private timberlands, and uncharacteristic high severity fire resulting from a century of fire suppression.
Table 1. Cumulative area (acres) of disturbance within spotted owl territories (n = 2,002; 0.7 mile radius from an activity center) in the Sierra Nevada bioregion. Disturbances evaluated include Timber Harvest Plans (THP) approved and/or completed from 2006 to 2013, U.S. Forest Service activities completed since 2006 that are likely to reduce canopy cover, and the amount of high severity fire.
Clear-cutting of large patches of old-growth forests on private lands continues today, creating fragmented landscapes lacking habitat for spotted owls.
The photos taken by Google Earth shown below are of industrial timberlands in the northern and central Sierra Nevada. As demonstrated by these recent Google Earth images, industrial logging practices have fragmented and degraded high quality spotted owl habitat through the central and northern Sierra Bioregion over the past several decades. These practices permanently convert green forestlands into tree farms that are managed on short rotations (turnover period before being logged again) and never develop old age forest characteristics owls and other old forest species need to survive. While industrial owners claim spotted owls use their lands, there is no evidence of long-term persistence in this degraded habitat. This ownership pattern limits wildlife connectivity for a suite of animals, isolating owl sub-populations and limiting options for critically needed population expansion.
Image below: Industrial timberlands west of Lassen National Park and Lassen National Forest south of Highway 44 and Viola, CA (Google Earth)
Image below: El Dorado County industrial timberlands north of Highway 50 adjacent to Stumpy Meadows Reservoir and south of the Rubicon River. This is the site of the 2014 King Fire. (Google Earth)
Image below: Calaveras County industrial timberlands north and south of Highway 4 (Google Earth)
Loss of important nesting and roosting habitat due to a century of fire suppression and the failure to allow fire to beneficially shape the landscape
While fire suppression may be the management tool of choice directly adjacent to forest communities, paradoxically, intensive efforts of wildland fire suppression focused on eliminating large, damaging wildfires has ensured the inevitable occurrence of these fire (See Calkin et al. 2015).
Image below: Fire retardant dropped by air tanker, Lowell Fire, July 2015
Prescribed fire and use of natural ignitions for multiple resource benefits are critical tools for reduction of forest fuels across the larger Sierra Nevada landscape. The Sierra Nevada mixed conifer and pine/oak forests were resilient for 10,000 years due to frequent low and mixed severity fire. Fire frequencies in the range of 8-12 years were common in pre-European settlement in California.
In the 97,000 acre King Fire (2014) in El Dorado County, much of that landscape had not seen fire in over a century leading to increased fuels build-up and significant high severity effects. This landscape, being similar to the larger 257,000 acre Rim Fire (2013), is a series of steep canyons that present limited options for mechanical fuels treatments. Getting major increases in fire use integrated into national forest management is critical to restore resilience, protect communities and enhance wildlife and watershed health.
Image below: Prescribed fire
Policy and Management History
CASPO Technical Report (1992) and Interim Guidelines (1993)
Forest Service managers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s noted the plight of the Northern spotted owl in Oregon and Washington and took steps to protect the California spotted owl in the Sierra Nevada. This effort resulted in the 1992 Forest Service research publication The California Spotted Owl: A Technical Assessment of Its Current Status (PSW-GTR-133; CASPO Technical Assessment). The recommendations included halting the logging of large trees more than 30 inches in diameter, ending the practice of clear-cutting green trees which limited drastic changes in canopy cover, and increasing protection of standing dead trees and large logs as important ecological attributes for owls and a full range of old forest species. The document also promoted significant increases in the use of fire to restore forest resilience. The Forest Service took this guidance from their research branch and implemented changes to forest plans that lasted for more than a decade.
New science in 1996 Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project report led to the Clinton-Era 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework.
In 1996 the Center for Wildland Resources, led by Dr. Don Erman at the University of California, published the extensive Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) Report documenting the impacts of excessive resource extraction, failing watershed health and the need for fire as a natural ecosystem process to maintain forest resilience. The SNEP Report resulted in a 1998 proposal by the Forest Service to amend all eleven forest plans in the Sierra Nevada based on new scientific information in the SNEP Report, new spotted owl research and various watershed studies that called out the need for improved ecosystem management. In early 2001 the Forest Service published the 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework Plan Amendment which incorporated much of this new scientific information. The 2001 Framework won two national planning awards and high praises from Forest Service and USDA leadership. The new plan limited logging of trees greater than 20 inches in diameter except in areas directly adjacent to communities, increased protection measures for old growth forests, protected several rare and at-risk terrestrial wildlife and aquatic species, and recommended increased use of managed fire for resource benefit.
2004 SN Framework and SFL litigation to halt Bush Administration logging plan
With the change in the national elections in 2000, the industry-friendly Bush Administration proposed major changes to Clinton Administration policies that resulted in limited protection for old forest areas and at-risk wildlife such as the California spotted owl, and gutted protections for trees greater than 20 inches in diameter thus undermining habitat elements critical for spotted owl survival. Sierra Forest Legacy and several coalition partners filed suit in 2005 and engaged in an extended legal battle that ended in a settlement agreement in October 2014. The Framework settlement agreement proposes specific elements that attempt to repair the damage resulting from Bush-era logging and re-establish a California spotted owl conservation strategy and increased use of managed fire in the Sierra Nevada. While this settlement process is still a work-in-progress it is tied to scientific recommendations made by scientists as far back as the 1992 CASPO Technical Assessment both in terms of increased habitat protection for owls, increased protection for large trees and the need for landscape fire use.
Recent important scientific research relative to the California spotted owl
Barrowclough, G.F., R.J. Gutiérrez, J.G. Groth, J.E. Lai, and D.F. Rock. 2011. The hybrid zone between northern and California spotted owls in the Cascade-Sierran suture zone. The Condor 113:581-589. (234 KB PDF)
Calkin, D.E., M.P. Thompson, and M.A. Finney. 2015. Negative consequences of positive feedbacks in US wildfire management. Forest Ecosystems (2015) 2:9. DOI 10.1186/s40663-015-0033-8. (Relevance: entrenched agency reliance on fire suppression is exacerbating loss of fire resiliency)
Conner, M. M., J. J. Keane, C. V. Gallagher, G. J. Jehle, T. E. Munton, P. A. Shaklee, and R. A. Gerrard. 2013. Realized population change for long-term monitoring: California spotted owl case study. Journal of Wildlife Management 77: 1449-1458. (Relevance: Population declines on Forest Service lands in Northern and Southern Sierra Nevada).
Dolanc, C.R., H.D. Safford, J.H. Thorne, and S.Z. Dobrowski. 2014. Changing forest structure across the landscape of the Sierra Nevada, CA, since the 1930s. Ecosphere 5(8):101. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES14-00103.1 (Relevance: 41-60% decline of large diameter trees (>24” diameter) across nearly all elevational bands in the Sierra Nevada from 1930 to early 2000s).
Lee, D.E., M.L. Bond, and R.B. Siegel. 2012. Dynamics of breeding-season site occupancy of the California spotted owl in burned forests. The Condor 114:792-802 (Relevance: spotted owls are resilient to high severity fire at the landscape scale).
Seamans, M. E., and R. J. Gutierrez. 2007. Habitat selection in a changing environment: the relationship between habitat alteration and spotted owl territory occupancy and breeding dispersal. Condor 109:566-576. (Relevance: Impacts to high canopy cover forest habitat lead to owl dispersal).
Tempel, D.J., R.J. Gutierrez, S.A. Whitmore, M.J. Reetz, R.E. Stoelting, W.J. Berigan, M.E. Seamans, M.Z. Peery. 2014. Effects of forest management on California Spotted Owls: implications for reducing wildfire risk in fire-prone forests. Ecological Applications 24:2089–2106. (Relevance: 50% population decline in Central Sierra Nevada).