Canada’s Last Wild Spotted Owls to Be Captured
A secret British Columbia government plan to capture the last 16 wild northern spotted owls remaining in Canada and put them into a captive breeding program was leaked to an environmental group, which has made the plan public.
The “Northern Spotted Owl Population Enhancement and Recovery in British Columbia Proposed Five-Year Action Plan” was commissioned by the Liberal Government of Premier Gordon Campbell. It was written by a scientific team assembled by the government.
The seven member team includes three American government scientists and an American from a nonprofit organization, an official of the Toronto Zoo, a forest scientist from the University of British Columbia, and independent consultant Mike Fenger of Victoria, BC, who chairs the team.
The Western Canada Wilderness Committee, which received the leaked Five-Year Action Plan, written in March, says the provincial government wants to get rid of the endangered owls so it can log their last remaining habitat in southwestern British Columbia.
Northern spotted owls depend upon old growth forests for their habitat. The large, old trees are also the most prized by timber companies.
Leak of the plan comes as the Wilderness Committee confirmed active and planned logging in several areas that are key owl habitat, including Lillooet Lake, Fire Mountain in the Lillooet River Valley, and Blackwater Creek near Birkenhead Provincial Park.
Provincial government scientists have identified the loss and fragmentation of habitat due to logging as the primary threat to the owl.
The logging is approved under a British Columbia government management plan for owls that prioritizes logging over spotted owl protection. The BC government is the largest logger of owl habitat through its timber sales program.
In April 2006, the BC government announced the creation of a team of experts to advise on captive breeding and protecting recovery habitat.
Later, the provincial government changed the team’s terms of reference to disregard habitat. The Five-Year Action Plan confirms that the threats of habitat fragmentation and habitat loss are “beyond the scope” of the team’s terms of reference and are “therefore not addressed.”
In December 2006, the government established the Spotted Owl Population Enhancement Team, SOPET, an independent science team charged with providing advice regarding the variety of approaches that could potentially contribute to recovery of Canada’s most endangered bird.
SOPET says its recommendation to remove owls from the wild, breed them in captivity, and release them back into the wild is based on “professional judgment, personal experience, and an understanding of the scientific literature on population augmentation actions and how these actions might translate to Spotted Owl population performance in British Columbia.”
However, SOPET says, population enhancement actions have never been comprehensively applied to spotted owls, so while its recommendations are based on “our collective expert judgment” they are “characterized by an unknown amount of risk and uncertainty.”
“Ultimately,” SOPET emphasized, “the success of any population enhancement program will depend on adequately addressing the threats that originally placed the species at risk – the loss and fragmentation of habitat in the case of Spotted Owls in British Columbia.”
Although the issues of habitat loss and fragmentation were placed outside the team’s terms of reference, SOPET says the habitat issues are critical to recovery of the species.
SOPET recommends that removal of the owls should begin this year. The team suggests a budget in Year 1 of C$527,000 and an estimated five-year budget of C$3,42 million.
The government plan coincides with a court case brought by Sierra Legal on behalf of ForestEthics, the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, and the Wilderness Committee, that aims to force the Canadian government to protect spotted owl habitat using the federal Species at Risk Act.
Documents obtained in the court case reveal that Ottawa contemplated intervening in April 2006 in the face of continued logging by British Columbia but did not after the BC government promised that steps would be taken to recover the owl population and protect their habitat.
Members of SOPET are: Mike Fenger (Chair), Independent Consultant, Victoria, BC; Joseph Buchanan, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wildlife Diversity Division; Dr. Tom Cade, The Peregrine Fund, Boise, IA; Dr. Eric Forsman, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Corvallis, OR; Dr. Susan Haig, USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, Corvallis, OR; Dr. Kathy Martin, Centre for Applied Conservation Biology, University of British Columbia; Dr. William Rapley, Executive Director of Conservation, Education & Research, Toronto Zoo.