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Environmental, Campaign & Website News > Canadian Spotted Owl Going Extinct?

Canadian Spotted Owl Going Extinct?

Date : 5th December 2002, Source : Newsgroup

From the New York Times, underscoring the vital importance of not just protecting the species but the habitat the species lives in.
-Martin Stephan

December 4, 2002
On This Chick's Future, a Species Could Depend

ROUSE MOUNTAIN, British Columbia, Nov. 26 - After years of lawsuits and protests and government efforts to give the spotted owl a forest refuge from loggers, it has come down to this: a desperate experiment placing one baby bird in a pen on the outskirts of Vancouver.

The spotted owl - the same rare bird that a decade ago gave the American environmental movement one of its greatest victories in saving an endangered species and its forest habitat in the Pacific Northwest - is verging on extinction in Canada.

Even now in the United States, the spotted owl numbers only in the thousands. In Canada, according to the most optimistic estimate, there are no more than 30 mating pairs left, all of them in this western province, after a steep drop in their population. But many experts say there could be many fewer Canadian spotted owls left, and that no more than a handful hatched this year.

"The species looks pretty much as if it's in its downfall," said Ian Blackburn, a wildlife biologist who works for the provincial government.

For the moment, the fading hopes for the species rest on the tiny shoulders of a 17-inch chocolate brown baby who sits in a special 39-foot fir and cedar cage.

Scientists are not sure of its sex yet, though they think it is female, and they are thinking up names in hopes of generating public interest and political support.

"It feels like taking care of the dodo," said Ken Macquisten, a veterinarian and managing director of the Grouse Mountain Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, where the owl is being kept. "We have gone from managing owl populations to managing individual birds."

Nameless though it may be, the bird is being treated like royalty. Its pen has latticework that any deck owner would love, to let in just the right amount of light. It gets five brown mice to eat a day, so that when it is eventually released it will have a taste for the rodent meat available in the forest.

The bird is surrounded by a dozen fir trees and fir limbs, placed just so to make sure there is no feather damage. Security is tight. The cage is protected by electronic wire to keep out predators like weasels, raccoons and black bears.

The royal treatment is commensurate with the fact that this is the first time a healthy, wild spotted owl has been taken out of the forest for temporary safekeeping. The hope is to protect the six-month-old owl through the winter, when owls are most vulnerable to the scarcity of food, and free it in the spring close to another owl of the opposite sex. Then hope they mate.

Should the experiment work, biologists would seek out more young birds next year and try again.

Since there is nothing equivalent to the American Endangered Species Act in Canada and lumber interests dominate the politics of British Columbia, the tools government biologists and environmental groups have to save the creature and its woody domain are limited.

The Canadian spotted owl has been in trouble since at least the mid-1990's, when the provincial government came up with a plan to protect it in 21 "management zones" occupying 472,000 acres. But the government allowed loggers to continue cutting forests, as long as 63 percent of the land was left as suitable owl habitat.

That plan proved "inadequate to stabilize the population," according to a July report by government and university scientists.

Understanding that drastic action was needed, a team of biologists set out in search of mating owls. They found two pairs with two chicks each.

The provincial government decided to take one chick from each family to try to ensure the survival of the species in Canada, but by the time the biologists returned in late September, one pair was gone, presumably killed by predators. So the biologists decided to put all their efforts behind one chick, calculating it was better to leave one sibling in the wild to fend for itself since the risks of the experiment failing were high.

A docile creature, the spotted owl requires enormous unbroken expanses of mature forest with dense canopies to thrive. It is solitary and slow to reproduce, meaning that when dispersed it does not make a big effort to find a mate. Under the best of conditions, it is a particularly vulnerable creature, and these are not the best of conditions.

Old-growth forests are shrinking here. The provincial environmental ministry that paid five biologists to help the spotted owl along only a few years ago has cut its budget and now has only one fully employed.

The Sierra Legal Defense Fund, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and other groups have tried to protect the bird in the courts, but have little to show for their efforts. One lumber company has promised to stop logging in spotted owl habitat, but many keep cutting.

If the captive baby does not survive in the wild next spring, or does not mate eventually, government scientists say they might then try to move mature birds together to breed. That is considered risky because mature birds are attached to their territory and might well panic outside of it.

Failing that, government scientists say, they might try to trap the mature owls and breed them in captivity, a last-ditch effort that could turn the Canadian spotted owl into a dependent zoo bird.

Scientists say it is conceivable to breed the Canadian and American spotted owls, but that option has not been discussed yet. In any case, the bird does not move easily, and it is the disappearance of its habitat in Canada that makes its fate so uncertain.

All experts say time is running out.

"It would take the biggest optimist in the world to believe the spotted owl will be saved in Canada," said Joe Foy, director and campaign coordinator of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. "But when there's life, there's hope."

Document last updated on Wednesday 01 August 2018

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