Resource Science: Spotted owls and the timber wars

A pair of juvenile spotted owls.

“The timber wars are over…” (Bosworth and Brown 2007)

The “timber wars” refer to conflicts over logging and wildlife. Environmentalists claimed that logging impacted wildlife and the timber industry argued that multiple-use management can produce timber and protect wildlife. Much of the conflict was in the Pacific Northwest where the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of the northern spotted owl resulted in the devastation of the timber industry and communities reliant on it. Alston Chase (1995) describes this situation in his book, “In a Dark Wood.”

I think that Bosworth, a former Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and Brown, a Forest Service analyst, are wrong. The timber wars are not over. Bosworth and Brown made a good suggestion that collaboration is better than conflict, but the ESA continues to be used to stop timber harvest, and also oil and gas, mining, and livestock grazing.

Another former Chief of the Forest Service, Jack Ward Thomas, expressed concern about the people impacted: “The faces of the thousands of people who will be hurt by this haunt my sleep and my private thoughts. A congressman asked me … ‘Have you ever thought about the people who will be hurt by what you recommended?’ I answered, ‘Every … night from 1 to 5 in the morning. But that doesn’t change the biology of the situation.’”

The biology of the situation was that the numbers of northern spotted owls were declining and this was thought to be because of logging. Competition with barred owls is also a threat to spotted owls. But is that really the biology relevant to the ESA listing? Partially. The ESA requires that a species be threatened or endangered with extinction. Perhaps the northern spotted owl was close to extinction, but Chase’s book presents facts indicating it was not. The ESA also requires that the target of a listing petition be a species. As discussed in my previous WLJ columns, this can be a subspecies or distinct population segment, which are not scientifically definite.

Was the northern spotted owl ESA listing justified? No. First, the northern spotted owl is a subspecies, with the inherent uncertainty of the category. Second, the relationship of the northern spotted owl with other spotted owls is not definite. There are three subspecies: the northern spotted owl; the California spotted owl; and the Mexican spotted owl. The northern spotted owl range is in southwest British Columbia, western Washington and Oregon, and Northern California. The northern spotted owl range overlaps that of the California spotted owl which is in the southern Cascades, the western Sierra Nevada, and mountains in Southern California. The Mexican spotted owl range is in parts of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, and Mexico. Genetic studies indicate there is some movement and interbreeding among the three spotted owl subspecies. This pattern does not support subspecies designations in my view. Subspecies designations in general are not scientifically definite, so designating or not designating spotted owl subspecies is a matter of opinion.

The northern spotted owl and the Mexican spotted owl are listed under the ESA. The California spotted owl is not listed. Simple logic indicates that because the California spotted owl is not endangered, the entire spotted owl species is not endangered. Allowing subspecies to be listed under the ESA resulted in the northern spotted owl situation.

The northern spotted owl ESA listing was based on uncertain science. In my opinion, ESA listings such as the northern spotted owl used indefinite subspecies designations to stop timber harvest.

What you can do? Tell your elected officials and government agencies that because “subspecies” is part of the ESA definition of species, the listing of the northern spotted owl devastated the timber industry and communities.

The northern spotted owl, California spotted owl, and Mexican spotted owl are all subspecies and are not scientifically definite.

The northern spotted owl designation as an endangered subspecies is an example of the selective use of science with the ESA. The ESA should be changed to allow listing of only full species.

Forests can be managed for multiple use to produce timber, livestock grazing, and wildlife.

Dr. Matthew Cronin

(Matthew Cronin was a research professor at the University of Alaska and is now at Northwest Biology Company LLC and an affiliate professor at Montana State University. He can be reached at Check for a list of references and citations of this column.)

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