Losing the Spotted Owl
It goes without saying, for instance, that the gradual disappearance of the spotted owl in Canada will probably not make headlines in Canadian newspapers, and certainly won’t be a priority for American media outlets. Nevertheless, the slow extinction of the spotted owl symbolizes the waning of serious efforts to preserve our environment.
Over the past few summers I have seen ten to twenty Northern Spotted Owls while working in the field with the Olympic National Park owl crew in Washington State. Today, a chance sighting of a spotted owl in the wilds is a rare and miraculous event; the population has dwindled to a few thousand birds. Forced from the dwindling groves of spruce and hemlock trees, the owls have retreated slowly westward over the last few decades. Now, just miles from the Pacific, in the low river valleys beneath the Olympic mountains, the spotted owl is living out its numbered days.
At the base of the mountains, Highway 101 snakes around the Olympic peninsula following a silent, morose track through endless clear cuts. Coarse and hideous, with brush piled in heaps, the naked scars on the mountains emanate destruction and death. Here, the logging companies clear cut the land entirely, and then commence ‘sustainable logging practices,’ which entail replanting the tracts in rows of trees that grow until they are large enough to be cut again.
This is the battleground that executives in the Sierra Club probably never see: logging trucks barrel along the highway past greasy diners and gun shops. As major employers, the logging companies wield enormous power over locals, the state government and the Forest Service. So the loggers have no trouble purchasing public and private old-growth forests.
In the National Park, of course, the owls are protected from these intrusions. Discreetly nesting fifty or a hundred feet off the ground in huge, old trees, the protective adult owl and the shy chicks make for elusive subjects. I have spent many rainy hours in the silent forest, negotiating rock-strewn ravines, climbing over soft rotting logs and thrashing through wet underbrush—all the while hooting for the birds that are harder to find every year.
Fortunately, Park Service biologists are still tracking the remaining populations in the park; their Canadian counterparts have resorted to managing the handful of remaining birds. Last fall, scientists in British Columbia moved what is believed to be the only surviving Canadian chick from this year’s brood into a protected enclosure in hopes of sheltering and raising it until it can be released. The chick is literally the last of the spotted owls in Canada.
Due to civilization’s disruptive development, extinction is now a regular part of life on earth: scientists estimate that between 35 and 150 species die off every day. The case of the spotted owl, however, is politically noteworthy, as the fate of the owls has become something of a cause celebre. For decades, environmentalists have invoked the Endangered Species Act and the spotted owl’s protected status in efforts to preserve tracts of unspoiled wilderness.
This era may be coming to an end, as the species loses the territory it needs. Symbolically, the disappearance of the spotted owl may be a demoralizing blow to those interested in preserving some of our last wild places. Losing a species is hard, especially one that is the mascot of the environmental movement. More importantly, however, if we cannot save a high-profile species like the spotted owl from extinction, the situation is desperate indeed.