The Northern Spotted Owl is in an “Extinction Vortex” And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Doesn’t Care

by Tom Wheeler, Executive Director, EPIC


The northern spotted owl, the most iconic species of the struggle to protect the West’s temperate forests, has entered what one researcher has called an “extinction vortex.” The forces driving it to extinction—habitat loss, competition from the non-native barred owl, toxicant exposure, and more—are resulting in the owl’s tailspin. Without immediate change and investment, the northern spotted owl will likely go extinct in the wild within the next fifty years. Already the loss is staggering. In 1993, researchers estimated that there were likely around 14,000 northern spotted owl territories. Today, the estimate is less than 3,000. Only one reproductive pair remains in British Columbia and the species has been declared to be “functionally extinct” in Canada.  

Northern Spotted Owl with trees marked for logging in the background.. Photo Credit: Scott Carpenter.

EPIC has been at the forefront of pushing for more protections for our favorite forest raptor. In 2012, EPIC petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take owl conservation more seriously by “uplisting” the owl from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. By law, the process to make a determination of a species status under the act is supposed to take no longer than a year and a half. But year after year, the Service failed to complete its job. In 2020, we could wait no longer. Together with friends from across the West Coast, EPIC sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do their job: make a decision on our petition. 

Suddenly, under threat of lawsuit, the Service acted quickly. In about a week’s time, the Service published formal notice that the northern spotted owl does warrant listing as “endangered,” but there was a big catch. Instead of actually completing the process to formalize this new designation, the Service claimed that they were too busy with other work to finish the job — that listing was “warranted but precluded by higher priority actions,” to use government-speak. 

While the government was too busy to protect the species, it wasn’t too busy to go out of their way to harm them. On January 13, 2021, the Trump Administration announced that it would remove 3.4 million acres of critical habitat, or 42% of its former critical habitat, for the northern spotted owl. This final gift to the timber industry is a slap in the face to the hardworking biologists who staff the agency, who are reportedly in uproar over the decision. EPIC and our owl-loving allies are going to challenge this decision, although at time of press we cannot say how yet.

What’s next? With a new Biden Administration, we hope that the poor owl receives some additional attention and respect. First, it is imperative that the owl be uplisted to endangered. Second, the federal government needs to take necessary steps to stave off extinction and start the long, slow process of recovery. This will require stemming the loss of high-quality northern spotted owl habitat through logging, particularly on federal lands, and a coordinated effort between the two big federal land owners, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to begin to plan for dealing with competition from non-native barred owls. Experimental barred owl removal programs have begun to show success, with the greatest success at the southern edge of the barred owl’s range where they have not become fully established. Saving the northern spotted owl will require unpleasant and uncomfortable actions, including potentially shooting barred owls. Removing non-native species to save an endangered species is not new, but the charismatic barred owl will likely find sympathetic friends in the animal rights and environmental movement who question whether such a harsh response is necessary to save the northern spotted owl. It is. 

We are at a critical juncture. Inaction means the extinction of the northern spotted owl. EPIC pledges to redouble our efforts to ensure that the northern spotted owl doesn’t go extinct.