PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Scientists report that after two decades of attempts to save the species, northern spotted owl numbers in the Northwest are still on the decline — and at a faster rate.
The threatened bird nests in old trees and is at the heart of a decades-long struggle over the fate of the region's old-growth forests.
Scientists at a conference Tuesday in Vancouver, Washington, reported that owl numbers are now dropping at an annual rate of 3.8 percent, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Glen Sachet. Five years ago, the rate was 2.8 percent.
The scientists also said population declines are more widespread in the bird's range from Washington through Northern California.
Besides losing habitat, spotted owls in recent years have been pushed out by barred owls, an aggressive invader from the East.
Federal officials have begun a six-year experiment with shooting the barred owls to see whether spotted owls will move back into their old haunts.
The longer they are established in an area, the harder barred owls are on the spotted owl, which is down as much as 77 percent in some areas, said a statement from Paul Henson, Oregon state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Where barred owls are removed, he said, spotted owls have started to rebound.
The conference was held to monitor the effect of the Northwest Forest Plan, a bargain struck in 1994 to settle lawsuits over the spotted owl that had stymied logging on Northwest federal forests.
It was supposed to produce both habitat for the owl and logs for the timber industry, but advocates on both sides have contended ever since that it hasn't produced enough of either.
Citing commitments to the journal publishing the research, Sachet said scientists at the conference wouldn't do interviews.
But Sachet and participants in the conference confirmed the population numbers. The birds are counted in representative "study areas." Scientists don't attempt to arrive at overall population figures.
The declines produced a note of agreement among environmentalists and timber industry representatives, who otherwise have been at odds over the owl.
"They're going down the tubes," said Ross Mickey of the American Forest Resource Council.
"The canary in the coal mine is keeling over," said Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
Even before the Northwest Forest Plan was developed, research predicted the owl's numbers would fall faster as they got smaller, Stahl said. With thinning populations, he said, owls have a harder time finding each other to mate.
Increasing the owl's protection by changing its status from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act could lead to efforts to increase owl habitat on federal lands and provide incentives for owners of private forests to let trees grow older, said Dominick DellaSala, leader of an Oregon institute studying climate change and once a member of a federal spotted owl recovery team in the presidential administration of George W. Bush.
Mickey said the new spotted owl numbers were no surprise, given the effect of barred owls. He said the federal government needs to move faster to remove barred owls from the spotted owl's territory.
But, he said, it may be hard to win acceptance of costly annual killings that would amount to "a rangewide barred owl removal program that will have to be done every year until the end of time."