National Geographic | Despite massive effort, spotted owl populations at an all-time low

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A threatened owl could disappear from much of its range unless old-growth forests are protected and invasive barred owls are controlled.

National Geographic

The northern spotted owl has long been one of the most prominent species of the Pacific Northwest. With white-speckled brown plumage, big brown eyes, and a wingspan of up to four feet, these nocturnal birds rely solely on old-growth forests. They swoop between ancient Douglas fir and ponderosa pine on the hunt for salamanders and small rodents. For decades, researchers and conservationists have spent enormous time, effort, and money trying to protect them.

But the owls’ numbers are the lowest on record—their population has declined by somewhere between 50 and 75 percent since 1995, according to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation.

“We were anticipating that it would not be good, but we weren’t quite ready for it to be as bad as it was,” says Alan Franklin, a supervisory research biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center, and the study’s lead author. The owl’s numbers, he said, are the lowest since monitoring began.

The study warns that drastic steps need to be taken to save the owl. These animals only live in old-growth forests, which have declined by 70 percent over the past three decades due to logging and development. The ancient forest that’s left must be protected, the authors say, for the owls to have a chance.

But they’re most threatened by barred owls, an invasive bird that outcompetes them. The study warns that populations of these invaders must be significantly curtailed throughout the spotted owl’s range. Otherwise, the authors conclude that the northern spotted owl will probably disappear from much of its habitat over the next 50 years.

But this is easier said than done—and the study raises thorny questions about how best to save this threatened species.

What lies ahead for the owl, Franklin says, is “an uncertain but disturbing future.”

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