The northern spotted owl is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It inhabits the old growth forests of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Studies estimate that there are fewer than 2,360 pairs of these owls left on earth.
These owls are adept predators and the have a distinct flight pattern that allows them to sneak up on their prey. They also have special feathers that are serrated like a comb at the edge, which reduces turbulence thus reducing sound. They have large wings that allow them to flap less making less noise in flight. These features combine to make the owl a stealthy hunter.
Owls vs. jobs
The northern spotted owl is a symbol of the larger conflict that exists between balancing economic opportunities with the preservation of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. These owls like to make their homes in the cavities of large, broken or hollowed out trees that are more prevalent in old-growth forests. Such forests provide cool and damp conditions preferred by the owls and are home to their favorite food source, small mammals.
These owls are an indicator species for old-growth forests. This means that they give us a larger picture of the health of the ecosystem in which they live. If the owls become extinct it is a good indicator that the health of their forest ecosystems are declining.
On March 7, 1991, U.S. District Court judge William Dwyer made a decision to block all logging in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. This was a monumental victory for the habitat of the northern spotted owl, but a harsh blow for the timber industry in this part of the country. The argument between environmentalists and the timber industry was often coined “owls vs. jobs.” This is a familiar argument. It represents the larger battle between balancing economic development with environmental conservation.
Do we really need more wood?
This conflict is often seen as a zero sum situation: if we preserve more forest, this automatically means fewer jobs for people in the timber industry. However, there are many other options for jobs. One possibility is to create organizations that offer jobs in conservation to those that lose their jobs in the timber industry. These could be positions that help manage the forest sustainably rather than just cutting it all down. Tourism is also another possibility. There are many possibilities for tourist ventures such as eco-resorts, retreat centers and camps that would have much less impact on the forest ecosystems and provide good jobs for people who live in these areas. It only requires some flexibility and ingenuity on our behalf. Change in our culture and our economy is inevitable. We control the direction of change.
How we can all help
Our decisions impact not only our well-being as the dominant species on this planet, but also the well-being and survival of many other species like the spotted owl that have no voice other than a soft cry only heard in the canopies of the largest and oldest trees in the world. There are ways that we can all help ensure the health of owl habitat. One of the easiest things we can do is buy sustainably certified wood and/or use old/recycled lumber for building projects. We can also contribute to organizations such as the Nature Conservancy that are working to preserve habitat for northern spotted owls.