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Final Briefing Report to the Washington State Forest Practices Board regarding Spotted Owl Status and Forest Practices Rules

Category: Wildlife Research and Management - Non-Game Management and Conservation

Date Published: August 2005

Number of Pages: 103

Author(s): Joseph B. Buchanan and Paula Swedeen


The current Washington State Forest Practices Rules for the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) were adopted by the Forest Practices Board on 22 May 1996, and became effective 1 July 1996. These rules contain provisions for assessing potential impacts to Spotted Owls that might result from forest practices on non-federal lands. The rules establish “critical habitat state,” provide definitions of suitable Spotted Owl habitat, and define key landscapes, referred to as Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas, where owl conservation is important. In addition, although the rules protect habitat in owl management circles centered on site centers, an option is provided for voluntary landscape management plans to replace circle-by-circle management. Due to uncertainties about the effectiveness of the current Forest Practices Rules in protecting sub-populations of Spotted Owls, the rules contain language requiring their periodic assessment. 

The purpose of this report is to provide the Forest Practices Board with objective information on the Spotted Owl in the context of the Board’s evaluation of the Forest Practices Rules as they relate to Spotted Owls. This briefing report contains information on: 1) the population status of the owl in Washington; 2) the ecology and behavior of the owl, including factors that may influence subpopulation status; 3) the federal- and state-level regulatory context at the time of rule development; 4) an overview of the Forest Practices Rules developed for the Spotted Owl; 5) areas of concern regarding Spotted Owl rule implementation; and 6) information gaps that are relevant to future assessments or effective implementation.

Distribution of the Spotted Owl
The Northern Spotted Owl (S. o. caurina) is one of three Spotted Owl subspecies, and the only one found in Washington. Northern Spotted Owls are distributed from extreme southwestern British Columbia to northern California. In Washington, Spotted Owls now occur primarily on the eastern and western slopes of the Cascade Mountains and the Olympic Peninsula. Although records are few, it apparently formerly occurred in the Puget Trough and throughout the western Washington lowlands, but now occurs only rarely in the southwestern Washington portion of that province. Spotted Owls are found between sea level and about 3500 to 5000 feet, the upper elevation limit varying by region.

Status of the Spotted Owl in Washington
The Spotted Owl population in Washington is experiencing a prolonged and accelerating decline. This decline has been well documented in a series of workshops where analyses of long-term data sets were conducted according to standardized procedures. Results of the January 2004 demography workshop indicated a continuing decline in Spotted Owl subpopulations. Substantial portions of six Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas (Entiat, Hoh-Clearwater, I-90 East, I-90 West, North Blewett, White Salmon), key Spotted Owl management areas for non-federal lands in Washington, were included as study areas in the long-term demography research. The annual rates of decline in three Washington study areas (6.2 to 10.4%) were higher than elsewhere in the range of the Northern Spotted Owl. Supplemental data from several monitoring efforts indicate an overall decline of 65% in the number of owl pairs detected between the early 1990s and the present.

In November 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a five-year review of the Northern Spotted Owl. As part of this review, a panel of scientists (organized through Sustainable Ecosystems Institute) was contracted to review information on Spotted Owls. The panel of scientists concluded that important real or potential threats to Spotted Owl populations included loss of habitat and competition with Barred Owls (Strix varia), a closely related owl species that has only recently invaded the Pacific Northwest. The threat of West Nile Virus impacting Spotted Owls in the near future is also a concern. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five-year review concluded that the information needed to assess habitat loss on non-federal lands was generally lacking, such data should soon be available from a study conducted by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reiterated opinions expressed by the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute panel of scientists. The ultimate conclusion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five-year review was that the threatened status of the species was justified and that no change in status would be made at this time.

Ecology and Behavior of Spotted Owls
The ecology, behavior and habitat use of Spotted Owls have been intensively studied in the Pacific Northwest and northern California. Spotted Owls have very large home ranges; in Washington the reported median annual home ranges were 6,610 acres in the eastern Cascade Mountains, 8,205 acres in the western Cascade Mountains and 14,232 acres in the Olympic Peninsula. Within these home ranges, Spotted Owls use large areas (thousands of acres) of suitable habitat. Most forests used by Spotted Owls in Washington is old-growth forest, but owls also use comparatively younger forest that contains complex structure such as large snags, coarse wood debris and residual trees from previous stands. In the eastern Cascade Mountains Spotted Owls use a substantial amount of comparatively younger forest. Spotted Owls in Washington nest in cavities, in “chimneys” atop broken-topped trees, and in the eastern Cascade Mountains use abandoned Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) nests and open platforms created by accumulation of debris, often associated with clusters of branches infected by dwarfmistletoe (Arceuthobium douglasii). Spotted Owls hunt in suitable forest habitat for a variety of prey species including their preferred prey, the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus).

Spotted Owls breed in the spring and the young disperse from the natal area beginning in September and October. Dispersing juveniles experience high mortality rates, likely due to their general inexperience while traversing landscapes that are foreign to them. The primary causes of mortality for juveniles appear to be starvation and predation. The single study conducted on habitat use during dispersal indicates that Spotted Owls made substantial use of old forest, but also used various categories of younger forests.

Juveniles disperse until they die or colonize a territory. Some juveniles linger in the periphery of territories that they do not control – such owls are considered “floaters” – and eventually may acquire the territory when one of the existing owls leaves or dies. Adults rarely disperse; such dispersal occurs after “divorce” or the death of a pair member, in which case one or both birds, as the case may be, seek a new territory.

Reproductive output of Spotted Owls varies spatially and temporally, but for reasons that are not well understood. Research in the eastern Cascade Mountains indicates that owls in the lower and drier easternmost portion of the species’ range have higher reproductive rates than owls closer to the Cascade Mountain crest. This spatial pattern may be related to winter weather conditions and prey resources. Throughout the range of the species there is marked variation from year to year in the proportion of pairs that reproduce and the number of young produced. Over much of the Pacific Northwest a pattern of alternating years with poor or good productivity existed for a decade or more and ended only recently. Although weather is a factor that influences productivity in Spotted Owls, the factor(s) that explain the unique pattern of poor reproduction (nearly total failure in some years) in alternating years is unknown.

Federal and State Regulatory Context
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission listed the Northern Spotted Owl as an endangered species in Washington in 1988. The owl was listed as a federally threatened species in 1990. Wildlife species associated with forest ecosystems are considered protected public resources of the state under forest practices law (RCW Chapter 79.06). Furthermore, the Forest Practices regulations require that both state and federally listed species be considered for designation of “critical habitat state” – a designation that serves as a trigger for State Environmental Policy Act review (WAC 222-16-050(1)(b)). In addition, Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act prohibits unauthorized take, which includes modification of habitat that leads to impairment of an animal’s ability to meet its life requisites, of listed species on non-federal lands. Taken together, the regulatory requirements of the Endangered Species Act, the listing authority of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the regulatory requirements of the Forest Practices Act created the conditions under which management of federal and non-federal lands would eventually be considered together to help achieve species recovery and limit the economic impact to private landowners as much as possible.

Following the development of a conservation strategy and a draft final recovery plan for the owl, neither of which was implemented, the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 was enacted to address management of species associated with late-successional forests on federal lands. The Northwest Forest Plan reserve design included 7.87 million acres of federal forest and was designed to address multiple species (not just Spotted Owls) and consequently some reserves have little or no habitat or owls whereas others support many owls and large amounts of habitat. Approximately 62 percent of known territorial Spotted Owl sites received protection under the Northwest Forest Plan.

The Northwest Forest Plan, recommendations from the Spotted Owl Recovery Plan and a stakeholder advisory group (the Spotted Owl Scientific Advisory Group), and a proposal to develop a federal 4(d) rule (i.e., a proposed revision to the default application of the Endangered Species Act take prohibition), served to anchor discussions on where to manage for Spotted Owls on nonfederal lands. A Timber-Fish-Wildlife policy group negotiated a rule package based on these planning initiatives. Their proposed rule was adopted by the Forest Practices Board and evaluated in a Final Environmental Impact Statement released in 1996. In that Final Environmental Impact Statement, the Forest Practices Board adopted a goal to enact a rule that “captures all forest practices that have potential for a substantial adverse impact on the environment.” The Board specified that in the case of the owl, this would include “any forest practice that damages the long-term viability of populations of Spotted Owls in Washington State.” The Final Environmental Impact Statement further defined viability as “the long-term persistence and adaptation of a species or population in a given place.” A viability standard thus became a defining goal for the development of a rule. The Final Environmental Impact Statement compared the strengths and weaknesses of various alternatives and pointed out some risk areas in the rule alternative that was adopted by the Board.

Overview of State Forest Practices Rules for the Spotted Owl
The Forest Practices Rules for Spotted Owls can be described as containing three basic types of provisions. These provisions include:

1) regulations that apply outside Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas,

2) a circle-based protection scheme for Spotted Owl sites inside Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas, and

3) landscape-level planning options for inside Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas.

Forest Practices Rules outside the Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas are designed to protect the immediate vicinity of Spotted Owl site centers during the nesting season. During the nesting season (1 March to 31 August), the best 70 acres of habitat around the site center is protected from harvest. Outside the nesting season there are no owl-related protections that constrain harvest of suitable Spotted Owl habitat in Spotted Owl management circles.

In Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas, suitable owl habitat inside management circles established for territorial Spotted Owls is regulated under the default component of the Forest Practices Rules. In addition to defining the boundaries and conservation functions of the Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas, the rules describe critical habitat (state) and provide information that the Department of Natural Resources would use to evaluate potential impacts from proposed harvest activity.

The Forest Practices Rules also contain two options for managing Spotted Owl habitat in Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas. The Landowner Option Plan was designed to allow landowners to manage habitats for Spotted Owls without using owl management circles. Because Spotted Owls do not have circular home ranges and often use habitat areas beyond the management circle, implementation of such plans in Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas will likely provide better landscape-level conditions for owls.

Landowner Option Plans are agreements between the landowner and the Department of Natural Resources. The other optional component of the rules is the Cooperative Habitat Enhancement Agreement. This provision of the rule allows landowners to make agreements with the Department of Natural Resources to retain or recruit Spotted Owl habitat that is not currently associated with a known owl site. It provides assurances that should an owl colonize the retained or recruited habitat the landowner could manage to the conditions spelled out in the agreement and would not be constrained by protective regulations. Any category of landowner (i.e., industrial, non-industrial) may participate in these two planning options.

Areas of Concern Regarding Rule Implementation
Several areas of concern were identified in this report. The most important of these issues include: a) a lack of landscape planning (see page 44), b) a lack of protection of habitat at locations where owls do not respond during surveys (see page 45), c) various examples of ambiguous language (see page 49), d) implementation issues relating to the definitions of suitable habitat (see page 55), and e) the need for additional biological information to support certain elements of the habitat definitions (see pages 56 and 69).

One area where rule implementation appears to fall short of the Board’s expectations is the lack of incentives for landowners to engage in landscape-level conservation planning that addresses Spotted Owl habitat needs. As a result, while some landowners chose to develop Habitat Conservation Plans, or to protect habitat within owl circles, significant portions of some Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas have no owl habitat planning underway. This is particularly important recognizing that habitat in some owl circles in Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas is not protected if surveys indicate no owl responses during three consecutive years. Demonstrating site inactivity, regardless of whether inactivity is temporary or permanent, eliminates State Environmental Policy Act protections for the particular Spotted Owl management circles, and can thus enable harvest of suitable Spotted Owl habitat and the subsequent degradation of landscape conditions for Spotted Owl subpopulations.

Landscape-level conservation planning is a recognized tool with the potential to provide important conservation measures for wildlife while providing management flexibility for landowners. This value was reflected during rule making by the inclusion of an option that permitted replacement of circle-by-circle management with two forms of landscape-level planning: the Landowner Option Plan and the Cooperative Habitat Enhancement Agreement. To date, one Landowner Option Plan (for 540 acres) and no Cooperative Habitat Enhancement Agreements have been approved. Negotiations recently began for a Landowner Option Plan with an industrial landowner and other landowners have expressed an interest in developing plans. Habitat Conservation Plans have been developed in parts of each Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Area, but about 54% of the area contained within Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas have no such plans. Several Habitat Conservation Plans were negotiated prior to implementation of the 1996 rules, and some plans contain provisions that are consistent with conservation functions of the Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas, while others are inconsistent in some way.

There are various issues associated with effective implementation of habitat definitions in the rules. Definitions were largely derived from the 1993 Spotted Owl Scientific Advisory Group report. The Spotted Owl Scientific Advisory Group stated that their definitions should be periodically updated with new research and that research should be conducted in which the relationship among various attributes of Spotted Owl habitat were studied. New research since rule negotiation and implementation is summarized in this report. However, no research program has been undertaken to further overall understanding of Spotted Owl habitat use in Washington since 1996. From an implementation perspective, the rule language is written such that if any one habitat attribute is missing in a forest stand, that stand is technically non-habitat and thus available for harvest. Such “near-miss” situations could be functioning as suitable habitat, or could, with appropriate management, provide function in the near future.

A major element of the rule is the conservation function assigned to each Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Area or portions of these landscapes. These are demographic support, dispersal, and combination support functions. We believe that the concept of “combination support” as a goal for some Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas or parts of these landscapes is ambiguous (by describing contradictory conservation functions) and offers little specific guidance for landscape planning in these areas.

Information Gaps
While compiling information for this assessment we noted a number of substantive information or database needs. Addressing these information gaps will improve efficiency of rule implementation by increasing conservation effectiveness and reducing conflicts. In addition, addressing some of the information gaps should enhance conservation planning efforts and address fire risk reduction in the eastern Cascade Mountains. These information needs relate to: a) a dedicated database or a process for monitoring changes in suitable habitat in Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas; b) a database, including Geographic Information System data, to store essential information on the location and conservation functions of implemented management plans (e.g., Landowner Option Plans, Cooperative Habitat Enhancement Agreements, Habitat Conservation Plans) in Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas; c) a better understanding of the 500-acre exemption; d) improvement and clarification of habitat definitions; and e) a better understanding of habitat use by Spotted Owls, both in forests that have been managed in some way, and those used during natal dispersal.

Briefing Report Development Process
The technical stakeholder process sponsored by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, through facilitated group discussion, confirmed the significance of several key aspects of Spotted Owl Forest Practices rule implementation that were identified in the draft briefing report. These issues were:

1) the need for more landscape planning in Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas,

2) the use of surveys to remove protections from Spotted Owl sites,

3) vague language related to the combination function landscapes, and

4) implementation of habitat definitions.

The stakeholder discussions improved the depth of understanding of these issues and their relationships to each other. In addition, other issues were either raised by stakeholders or emerged as a result of discussions. These issues included:

1) establishment of measurable objectives for Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas;

2) a variety of issues related to the location, function, and boundaries of existing or potential Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas;

3) incentives and disincentives for landscape planning;

4) the contribution of federal lands and existing Habitat Conservation Plans to meeting Spotted Owl conservation goals; and

5) the role of non-habitat limiting factors in influencing Spotted Owl management.

Some of these issues that are directly related to either Spotted Owl biology or implementation of the existing rule were addressed in this document. However, some were outside of the scope of this document, but are important to the Board’s wildlife assessment process.