Alt Left: California Spotted Owl Wins Endangered Species Act Protections


After 23 long years, the California Spotted Owl has finally been granted endangered species protection, as the US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list it under the Endangered Species Act. The Southern California and coast range populations will be listed as endangered and the Sierra Nevada population will be listed as Threatened, albeit with a 4D rule that will exempt a lot of timber harvest from the new rules. The environmentalists don’t appear to be bitching much about this 4D rule though.

By the way, I have spoken with a number of people who work for this group by phone and email, including the head of the organization and their conservation director, a guy named Singer.

I also read a lot in biology scientific journals, as I have an interest in endangered species. In addition, I read a lot of endangered species petitions. So I know a lot about this sort of thing even though I don’t write about it often. I’m a hardcore, deep ecologist type environmentalist, so I’m definitely on the Left as far as that goes too. I was a member of the Sierra Club for many years. I also used to be a member of the Wilderness Society (extremists, IMHO), the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Audubon Society.

I know a lot about this subject as I have been studying it for many years, over a decade. And I’ve spoken with the top scientists in California who worked on this owl. They starting worrying about this owl declining over 20 years ago. It favors old growth forest and doesn’t like more open forest. It feeds on Douglas Squirrels and White-footed Woodrats for the most part.

The Forest Service is mandated such that it’s activities not only cannot cause declines in listed species but also that it cannot even cause a “trend towards endangered species listing” in anything not listed yet. It was to avoid a new listing that the study was done.

The USFS did a long survey and found that it did not seem to be in good shape. They put in interim plans until they could study it more with PAC’s (Protected Activity Centers), limits on cutting trees over 30 inches in diameter, limits on how low they could cut the canopy cover (not below 40

It was also found to the biologists’ surprise that CASPO’s lived in the live oak belt of the foothills at fairly low elevations, which came as a shock to everyone.  I lived in the Sierra Nevada for 15 years and never saw or heard one single spotted owl, although several were said to be nearby.

The study went on for 10 years and it was found that the CASPO was indeed declining badly in the Sierra Nevada. In the mountains of Southern California it was doing even worse, and they are projected to go extinct there before the turn of the century.

It was found that they tended to occupy the shaded side of the mountains here. In California, northern facing slopes 4are shaded and southern facing slopes are sunny side. You can see the difference in vegetation just looking at one ridge. I’m not sure exactly how that shady and sunny side of mountain thing works exactly.

The main threat in Southern California was stand-replacing wildfires as there is very little timber harvest here mostly because the forests here are not extensive as it is so far south. I doubt if there are any Barred Owls in Southern California. The CASPO was also found to inhabit some ranges in far northern Baja California!

I’m not quite sure what is causing the Southern California population to decline so badly, but it is said that the area is a “population sink.” This is an area that attracts new immigrants of the species but it can’t sustain them, so the population tends to decline. Sort of like the sunk costs fallacy.

The are also present on the Central Coast all the way to San Mateo, California. This population is apparently also declining badly like the Southern California population, but I’m not sure what is causing the decline as there is little timber harvest and I don’t think Barred Owls are present.

North of the Bay, they are replaced by the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) of fame, which extends up through Oregon, Washington, and British Colombia. They’re almost extinct in British Colombia. The NSO is in much worse shape than the CASPO. The Mexican Spotted Owl (MSO) found in Arizona and New Mexico was also studied and found to be declining. The NSO and the MSO were both listed as Threatened. Timber-cutting restrictions were put in in the MSO range, which also caused a lot of fighting.

The listing and subsequent restrictions on the NSO, written up by scientists headed up by a man named Franklin, caused massive job loss in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), but the industry dug its own grave a while back by overcutting, clearcutting, and highgrading (cutting the biggest and best trees and leaving smaller ones). In the PNW harvest is mostly clearcutting and in the Sierra, it tends to be more small group selection.

A lot of logging is done with helicopters now. Bill Clinton crafted his Northwest Forest Plan to save the NSO in 1993. It was a compromise so of course everybody hated it!

The NSO in Northern California was and apparently still is in fairly good shape. It’s in worse shape in the Oregon and Washington Cascades. Along the Oregon and Washington coasts, the forests are mostly state forests which are little regulated. Those forests have been ruined by excess logging such that few owls live there anymore. At present, the NSO is no longer declining due to current timber harvest like the environmentalists say (they lie a lot too). Instead it is declining due to the effects of past timber harvest.

Another owl, the Barred Owl, used to live back east but came east with forests planted in the plains all the way to the West Coast. It is larger and more aggressive than spotted owls (SO’s), and it outcompetes them and even interbreeds with them.

The SO did not evolve with the Barred Owl, otherwise if the SO had survived this co-evolution, it would have evolved a way to coexist with Barred Owls or perhaps they would have interbred enough to create a new species. Yes, species can interbreed if they are closely related enough. If they are close enough to breed but too far apart to breed well, the offspring, such as the ligers crossed between tigers and lions, will be sterile.

The Barred Owl seems to favor more open areas, which makes them well adapted to cut over forests. Lately NSO’s are declining badly in Oregon and Washington mostly due to Barred Owls. It is getting hard to find them anymore.

The NSO needs to be upgraded to Endangered status, but that might be hard to do due to politics. Biologists are now roaming the forests with tape recorders and shotguns, playing Barred Owl calls and shooting them dead with guns. Some animal rights people don’t like it, but Barred Owls are not native to the region, so it’s no big deal to wipe them out to me.

Barred Owls have now moved into Northern California coast ranges and mountains of the far north of California. The split between the NSO and the CASPO occurs around Lassen National Park and Shasta Lake. They’ve also been seen in the northern and central Sierra Nevada, though not in large numbers. I’m not sure what the Barred Owl effect on NSO’s in the Sierras is at the moment.

It’s taken 23 years to list this damned bird, and that is all due to politics and the timber industry.

In the California Sierra Nevada, the CASPO is declining due to the effects of past and current harvest practices and the possibility of stand-replacing wildfires is also a risk. Environmentalist like to play down this risk, but what’s the difference between a huge clearcut and a stand-replacing wildfire.

In the Sierra Nevada, decades of highgrading along with too-vigorous fire suppression (remember Smokey the Bear?) have created forests that are far too thick with very small trees such that you almost cannot even walk through them. They are also very susceptible to fire. There are say 400 trees growing in an area where there should be 100, so the trees are crowding each other out competing for resources, water, sunlight, nutrients, etc.

Also, these dense stands have favored shade tolerant trees like cedars at the expense of more suns-loving species like Ponderosa Pine. The Ponderosa Pine zone is hardly even that anymore. Timber cutting in the Sierra will probably need to undergo further restrictions as the owl is also declining due to current timber harvest and not just past timber harvest.

The problem was that most of the mills in the area were set up for highgrading, that is, they were set up to mill the largest logs, which the loggers call “pumpkins.” A number were shut down and there was a big fight about it. I lived there at the time and I used to piss people off by saying, “I like spotted owls way more than I like people.” However, some of these mills have refitted and now, amazingly, they can saw cedars all the way down to 2″ in diameter and make pencils out of them! Generally a lot has to be at least 18 inches to saw a 2 X 4 out of it.

See how private industry screws up everything? In a place like China under a communist system, if they found out that logging was killing off a bird, they might just start logging a lot less or finding substitutes. As the logging business would not operate on a profit, it would be no big deal for the communists to not cut down so many trees except the state owned enterprise (SOE) might lose some workers.

In this sense, communism or even a well run socialism as in a number of European countries, where the government agencies and peopled by socialists who are not afraid to restrain the profits of capital is far superior to capitalism, which will never ameliorate a single environmental issue.

Under capitalism, the profit motive makes environmental protection extremely difficult because businesses will not accept less business, lower profits, or even going out of business on account of some regulations. Hence you have a continuous war between the state and capital, one which capital typically wins.

At the least, there are endless delays in putting in environmental protections. This applies to all sorts of other things too. You cannot run a decent society where the whole country acts according to the profit motive. It doesn’t work. Never mind regulatory capture, etc. where there is a revolving door between industry and the state functions that regulate that industry such that they trade musical chairs all the time.

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