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NORTHERN SPOTTED OWL (Strix occidentalis caurina)

18. Actions Already Completed Or Underway

18.1 Summary of Actions

The Spotted Owl has been the focus of intensive management efforts, inventory, and research throughout its range in North America. In British Columbia, most effort has been concentrated on inventory and habitat management in the Squamish and Chilliwack Forest Districts. This section lists actions already completed or underway in British Columbia, presented in approximate chronological order starting with the establishment of the first SORT in 1990.

18.1.1 Canadian Spotted Owl Recovery Team

A Spotted Owl Recovery Team (SORT) was first established in 1990 to develop a national recovery plan. However, concerns about potential socioeconomic impacts led instead to the development of management options that ranged from maximum to minimum habitat protection for the owl and, consequently, maximum to minimum socioeconomic impacts. A report entitled Management Options for the Northern Spotted Owl in British Columbia (Dunbar and Blackburn 1994) outlined six main options to manage the Spotted Owl. In 1995, after a provincial cabinet level decision, the premier’s office announced a plan to manage Spotted Owls through existing and new protected areas and enhanced forest conservation measures through the British Columbia Forest Practices Code. This plan was released as the Spotted Owl Management Plan (SOMP) in 1997 (see section 18.1.3).

The original SORT did not endorse the option selected because it predicted only a 60% probability of improving the status of the owl in British Columbia, and the team felt that 70% was the minimum they could accept (Dunbar and Blackburn, 1994). The SORT disbanded shortly after the release of SOMP and was replaced by the Spotted Owl Management Interagency Team (SOMIT). SOMIT consisted of representatives from the ministries of Environment and Forests who were charged with developing and implementing SOMP.

18.1.2 Interim Conservation Strategy

In 1993, pending development of a management plan and a future cabinet decision on the long-term management of the species, the provincial government implemented an Interim Conservation Strategy for Spotted Owls. This resulted in some level of habitat conservation at all known Spotted Owl locations in the province and a mechanism to protect more owls if they were found in the future. Each Spotted Owl location was managed to maintain 67% suitable habitat (forest older than 120 years) within a 3200-ha activity centre. This strategy was replaced by the SOMP in 1997.

18.1.3 Spotted Owl Management Plan

A joint Ministry of Forests and Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks team was established in 1995 to develop a Spotted Owl Management Plan (SOMP) focusing on one of the options presented by the SORT. Their goal was to “provide a reasonable probability that owl populations will stabilize, and possibly improve, over the long-term, without significant impacts on timber supply and forestry employment.” The provincial government released the SOMP in 1997 (SOMIT 1997a,b). SOMP established 21 Special Resource Management Zones (SRMZs) that included 159 000 ha of protected areas and 204 000 ha of Crown forest land to be legally established as Resource Management Zones under the Forest Practices Code of British Columbia Act (Figure 6). SOMP is still in effect today (2003) and the following paragraphs detail its provisions.

SRMZs are spaced a maximum 20 km apart, edge to edge, to provide a reasonable chance that owls may disperse from one SRMZ to another. SRMZs vary in size, encompassing between 2 and 13 Long-Term Activity Centres (LTACs, each about 3200 ha). Each LTAC is capable of sustaining a potential breeding pair of Spotted Owls, either immediately or in the future after habitat recruitment/restoration. According to the plan, the long-term stabilization--and possible improvement--of the Spotted Owl population depends on maintaining, or restoring, a minimum 67% of the gross forested area as suitable habitat (i.e., forests older than 100 years, taller than 19.4 m, and below 1370 m elevation) in each LTAC. Of the 101 LTACs identified within SRMZs, only 55 LTACs currently meet the minimum 67% habitat target. Recruitment of habitat up to this minimum target in the other 45 LTACs may require up to 60 years to achieve (Blackburn and Godwin 2003).

The SOMP provides temporary protection for an additional eight Spotted Owl locations, termed Matrix Activity Centres (MACs), found entirely or partially outside of SRMZs. These MACs are to be phased out by allowing, over a 50 year period, limited clearcutting of suitable habitat at a rate similar to the recruitment of suitable habitat into SRMZs. However, some MACs will be phased out sooner to achieve forest company timber needs to offset the impacts associated with the creation of the Mehatl Creek Protected Area (SOMIT 1997a).

As per Cabinet direction, the SOMP does not provide protection--beyond the existing provisions of the Forest Practices Act (1995) and Forest and Range Practices Act (2003)--to Spotted Owl locations discovered after June 1995 that are found outside of SRMZs, MACs, and protected areas. Since June 1995, 19 new Spotted Owl locations have been discovered and remain unprotected. Fourteen of these occur further north beyond the managed range of SOMP, eight of which occur in the Cascades Forest District (Blackburn and Godwin 2003). The remaining 5 of the 19 unprotected new locations occur within SOMP’s current boundary, but outside of existing SRMZs and MACs.

It was intended to establish SOMP as a Higher Level Plan under the Forest Practices Code of British Columbia Act, but this did not take place. Nonetheless, SOMP is largely being implemented by forest companies (Blackburn and Godwin 2003).

Figure 6. Extent of the Spotted Owl Management Plan.

Figure 6. Extent of the Spotted Owl Management Plan.


18.1.4 Analysis of the Spotted Owl Management Plan

Early reviews of SOMP were mixed. One review suggested the species would become extirpated in British Columbia (Hodum and Harrison 1997); another suggested the population would stabilize without a SOMP (Demarchi 1998). The SORT did not endorse the 1997 management plan as a national recovery plan because they deemed the predicted probability of improving the conservation status of the species to be too low.

The SOMP predicts a 60% chance of the population stabilizing and possibly improving its status over the longer term, but recognizes that the Spotted Owl population would continue to decline for the 20 to 30 years after its implementation. However, the sharpness of the decline in Spotted Owl numbers over the past decade and the possibility of imminent extirpation without additional recovery efforts (Blackburn et al. 2002) support the need for a re-evaluation of the existing management plan and consideration of new approaches to manage the owls and their habitats. Accordingly, the SORT has begun to re-evaluate SOMP and will continue to do so through the recovery process.

18.1.5 Inventory and monitoring

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, inventories were conducted (as much as resources allowed) to determine the range, distribution, and abundance of Spotted Owls in British Columbia, as well as to assist in resource management decisions. When feasible, breeding assessments and nest site searches were performed. In 1998, provincial government biologists began to attach leg-bands to Spotted Owls to identify individuals and monitor their movements and habitat occupancy. Between 1998 and 1999, transmitters were affixed to several breeding pairs to monitor, opportunistically, habitat use and home range sizes. Recent summaries of the overall status of the Spotted Owl (SOMIT 1999; Blackburn and Godwin 2003) and population trends and future outlook (Blackburn et al. 2002) have been prepared. Lastly, in September 2003, three fledged juveniles were affixed with transmitters to ascertain their dispersal movements and overwinter survival.

18.1.6 Mapping and modeling

GIS habitat models have been developed by the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection biologists to better identify suitable habitat, connectivity problems, new areas to survey, and to aid higher level planning for Spotted Owl habitat. Habitat maps have been produced, but are still works-in-progress. A demographic and habitat supply model is also being developed by the SORT.

18.1.7 Forest Practices Code

The Forest Practices Code, enabled by the Forest Practices Code of British Columbia Act, contains provisions for maintaining certain percentages of old-growth forest (Province of British Columbia 1995a) and conserving riparian habitat (Province of British Columbia 1995b) across the landscape. The Forest Practices Code Act is currently being replaced by the new Forest and Range Practices Act, which contains provisions for legally designated protected areas such as Ungulate Winter Ranges. These areas, although not large enough to protect an owl’s territory, could provide some protection for some important habitat or habitat features and therefore assist in the overall management of the species. The Forest Practices Code also contains the Identified Wildlife Management Strategy accounts which are directed at conserving habitat for wildlife species at risk from forest and range activities.

18.1.8 Identified Wildlife Management Strategy

Under the Forest Practices Code, an Identified Wildlife Management Strategy (IWMS) has been established to address those species that require additional habitat protection above other provisions (e.g., Old-growth Management Areas) of the Forest Practices Code. A draft IWMS account has been developed for Spotted Owls for version 2 of the IWMS documents. Under IWMS, a limited number of Wildlife Habitat Areas may be established on provincial Crown forest and/or range land, including such areas not covered by the SOMP (Province of British Columbia 2003). Wildlife Habitat Areas of sufficient size and quality have the potential to protect owl territories.

18.1.9 Cascade Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP)

Work has been ongoing to develop a LRMP for the Cascades Forest District. Recent surveys have discovered active Spotted Owl sites here that are not protected by the existing management plan. Accordingly, the Spotted Owl and its habitat requirements are now included in the wildlife issues that this LRMP addresses. Once approved by government, this LRMP will provide a mechanism for government to act on issues regarding Spotted Owl habitat.

18.1.10 Spotted Owl Status Reports

The Spotted Owl was first designated as Endangered in Canada by COSEWIC in 1986 (Campbell and Campbell 1986). This was reconfirmed in 1999 based on an updated COSEWIC Status Report (Kirk 1999). Because of requirements to accommodate the federal Species At Risk Act, all COSEWIC rankings were reassessed in 2000. For the Spotted Owl, this was again based on the 1999 COSEWIC Status Report, and the Endangered status was reconfirmed. Although there is no doubt about the status of this species, there has been much recent important work done on the species in British Columbia and in the United States, and the COSEWIC report needed further updating to include this. Accordingly, the province is currently completing an updated provincial Status Report for publication in 2003 (Blackburn and Godwin 2003). It is intended to forward this to COSEWIC for review and consideration as a COSEWIC Status Report after completion.

18.1.11 Re-establishment of SORT

In October 2002, after news of the owl’s worsening decline, a new SORT was initiated to review the existing SOMP and develop a recovery plan to meet the requirements of the federal Species at Risk Act. This recovery strategy is the first step in that process. It is being developed to enable recovery action plans to be prepared and implemented, which may include plans for inventory, research, population augmentation, habitat enhancement, and habitat protection. The actions plans will then be combined with the recovery strategy into a final recovery plan for the Spotted Owl in Canada.

18.1.12 SORT’s 2003 Interim Management Recommendations

Shortly after the re-establishment of SORT in October 2002, the provincial government requested that SORT prepare interim management recommendations based on the best science available at the time. The new SORT provided interim management recommendations to government in January 2003 (Appendix 1). These recommendations cover immediate needs for inventory, research, captive management, habitat enhancement, and habitat protection.

The government has taken these under advisement and are considering the establishment of interim measures for Spotted Owls, although as of November 2003 no decision has been made.

18.1.13 Recent industry action

Two forest companies (International Forest Products Limited in October 2002 and Canadian Forest Products in January 2003) holding Crown forest tenures within the range of the Spotted Owl have voluntarily deferred logging in SRMZs in response to concerns for the owl. They are awaiting action/direction from government before deciding on how long to maintain the deferrals.

18.1.14 Capture and overwintering of juvenile owls

A trial capture and overwintering of one juvenile Spotted Owl was performed during the winter of 2002/2003. This owl was successfully maintained over the winter and released back into the wild wearing a radiotransmitter on April 16, 2003. Before release, the owl was vaccinated against West Nile virus as a precautionary measure. The owl was tracked regularly and recaptured on May 15 to assess her condition. Unfortunately, it was found that she had lost over 30% of her weight and was in very poor condition. She was taken back into captivity in an attempt to rehabilitate her, but she died the next day of apparent malnutrition. Much useful information was learned by this experiment that will be used to improve on any such attempts in the future.

 

18.2 Statement of When Action Plans will be Completed

This recovery strategy outlines many options for recovery actions. The SORT plans to use the information in this recovery strategy to guide the development of recovery action plans. The recovery action plans, when combined with the recovery strategy, will make up the complete recovery plan for the Spotted Owl. The target date for the following recovery action plans and the draft recovery plan is within a year of release of the recovery strategy; however, all efforts will be made to complete them, or parts of them, earlier to enable the needed recovery actions. Canadian recovery action plans will need to complete socioeconomic analyses where applicable (e.g., habitat/population action plans).

  1. Habitat Action Plan: to define survival and recovery habitat, review and evaluate effectiveness of SOMP, and provide recommendations of additional habitat recovery actions (within a year of release of the recovery strategy).
  2. Population Inventory Action Plan:to outline the population inventory requirements needed to support recovery needs, including inventory and monitoring of occupancy, population trends, and surveys for possible new territories (within a year of release of the recovery strategy)
  3. Population Augmentation Action Plan:to provide rationale, protocols, and recommended actions for captive-breeding, overwintering and translocations (within a year of release of the recovery strategy). Decisions on whether to proceed on some augmentation activities will need to be made sooner to accommodate any immediately necessary capture activity. It may prove feasible to combine the inventory and augmentation plans into a single Population Action Plan.
  4. Research Action Plan: to provide details and further recommendations for potential research projects (within a year of release of the recovery strategy). A draft list has already been created (Appendix 2), which will be amended as needed and used to rank and guide research activities until the Research Action Plan is complete.
  5. Funding Action Plan: to deliver resources needed for recommended inventory, habitat, research, and population augmentation actions. Target date for completion is March 2005, although actions on this should be active and ongoing. A proposal to establish a non-profit society to garner funds for recovery purposes was tabled by I. Blackburn, February 2003, and is under review (Appendix 3).
  6. Other recovery action plans: the SORT recognizes that after this recovery strategy is released and work on the above-mentioned plans is underway, a need for combining these plans or adding other recovery action plans may become apparent. If so, they will be incorporated into the recovery plan with the same completion target date of within a year of release of the recovery strategy.

 

18.3 Evaluation

Several performance measures with schedules to be developed in the recovery action plans will be useful for evaluating the success of the recovery strategy, including:

  1. Prevention of extirpation of the Spotted Owl from British Columbia.
  2. Prevention of further decline in the range of the Northern Spotted Owl.
  3. Sufficient habitat conserved to maintain a viable population. An assessment of how much habitat is required to maintain the target number of owls (250 adults) will need to be made to evaluate the success of this objective.
  4. The number of additional unprotected occupied territories protected.
  5. Preparation of recovery action plans for habitat conservation, inventory, research, population augmentation, and funding by the dates proposed.
  6. The use of silvicultural techniques to speed up recruitment of habitat. An assessment of actual silvicultural treatments conducted will be required, which includes both audit and effectiveness evaluation components.
  7. An evaluation of any population augmentation techniques used, including an assessment of changes to the number of juveniles recruited into the population and the number of owls in the wild.
  8. Initiation of research on vital topics identified in the Research Action Plan.