On a rainy spring morning, huddled under the shelter of an ancient cedar, Jared Hobbs hoots, whoops and squawks. In years past, he could lure curious owls by drawing on his extensive repertoire. Among them are the whoo whoo whoo whooo territorial calls, alarm barks and a simple “helicopter” breeding call that coo coo coo coos into the air.
The calls bounce through the thick stand of trees and dissolve into the vast British Columbia rainforest.
Hobbs doesn’t wait for a response. Only one spotted owl remains in the Canadian wild, less than two kilometres from where he stands. Her precise location in the misty forest is a closely guarded secret and her lonely presence has become a symbol of the country’s inability to save a species on the verge of destruction.
The silence of the woods is familiar for the veteran biologist. For nearly three decades, Hobbs has watched the collapse of the species. He has tagged and tracked dozens of young owls who represented the hope of recovery. He has fed them mice in a futile effort to stave off death. His truck tyres have been slashed and the remains of a murdered spotted owl was once left on a tree stump as a threat.
“When I drive the highways and backroads here in their former range, all I see are ghosts,” he says. “The owls we’ve lost, I know their stories. And those stories are gone.”
For decades, the Canadian government and the province of British Columbia have fretted over the owls’ “catastrophic population decline”. The country’s environment minister has warned it faces “imminent threats to its survival” and a number of management plans have been drawn up, revised and reassessed amid community and scientific consultations.
The most recent identifies more than 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of protected habitat, but critics say is “completely watered down” and falls short because it withholds key areas from protection and still permits logging in old growth forests. Portions of old growth forest have been designated “future critical habitat” but only the designation “core critical habitat” triggers federal protections.
Old-growth forrest in Fraser River canyon, east of Vancouver, British Columbia, where the last known wild-born northern spotted owl in Canada is believed to live. Photograph: Jesse Winter/The Guardian
The cascade of failures, and the news this month that two more owls have died, raises the uncomfortable possibility that it might be too late for the northern spotted owl.
Owls have long represented the mystical and supernatural elements of human experience. They are harbingers of death, protectors and conduits to the spirit world. Even the way they move silently through a forest can feel otherworldly. Their keen, piercing eyesight is bettered only by their hearing, allowing them to experience the world on a seemingly different plane of existence.
“They’re ‘gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear’ when they move through their environment,” says Hobbs, quoting the naturalist Henry Beston. “I tell people that when you get close to an owl, you need to be calm because it is, quite literally, listening to the beating of your heart … to discern your intent.”
Called skelúleʔ in the the Nlaka’pamux language, legends of the spotted owl’s fearsome nature loomed over James Hobart as a child, when his family would spend summers deep in the forest.
“My mom, she’d tell us stories about them, how they’d grab us if we didn’t behave or if we were out too late,” remembers Hobart, now chief of the Spô’zêm First Nation. “When you hear the owls, you better be inside … I remember the owls and I remember the fear.”
It has been decades since he heard the haunting barks and trills of the diminutive owl, but with the terror gone, they remind him of the warm summer nights of his youth.
“When I tell my own kids that story, it feels different. Because they’ve never heard the sounds of the owl at night. I don’t know if they ever will.”
The Spô’zêm First Nation, which occupies the lower swaths of the Fraser Canyon, has become a leading force in the last-ditch fight to save the owl, joining environmental groups to protest against the logging of old growth forest within their territory.
Last summer, the community released three male owls into the wild, an event marked by prayer and ceremony. The birds, raised nearby at the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program (NSOBP) in Langley, carried a heavy burden as they disappeared into the woods. The First Nation, and the province, hoped that by joining the one lone female, whose mate had recently died, the young owls could be a turning point in recovery efforts.
Tragedy first struck in the autumn, when one of the males was hit by a slow-moving train. He survived, but had to be brought back to the breeding facility to recover. Then, this month, it was announced that the two remaining reintroduced owls had been found dead, the tragedy highlighting the fragile nature of reintroducing captive animals into a hostile environment.
Hobart says efforts to bring back the owls will be redoubled, with plans to release more in the coming years. In a news release, he pledged to investigate if anything could have been done to prevent the grim outcome. “We took on this challenge together, and we will continue to keep on the intended path of repopulation of skelúleʔ,” he says.
For thousands of years, northern spotted owls, a subspecies of the spotted owl, lived in southern British Columbia, their range extending through Washington, Oregon and into northern California. In Canada, as many as 1,000 owls probably once lived in the cathedral-like forests. But generations of industrial development and logging have fractured the landscape and gutted their habitat.
When Hobbs began working for the provincial government as a species-at-risk biologist in the 1990s, there were an estimated 40 breeding pairs, but the numbers kept dropping. Through his fieldwork, he noticed the adult owls were living into old age but the juvenile owls were dying before they could acquire a territory of their own and produce young.
Spotted owls require as much as 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of forest to hunt and survive, says Hobbs, because their diet is largely limited to just two species of small rodent. For generations, the productive old-growth forests offered a haven for the birds. But logging irrevocably changed the makeup of the forests, swapping thick stands of diverse trees with young, fast growing replacements that resemble a monoculture farm.
In recent years, when the young owls left the nest to seek out new food sources and establish their own territories, they had to negotiate a patchwork of forest broken up by cleared areas or development. They were forced to fly further and further, a distance far greater than their small bodies could tolerate. Locked in a vicious cycle of desperation, the young owls began to starve.
Chief Hobart remembers how the owls weren’t just an evil spectre, but a source of inspiration for his artist mother, Hrome’tik’inquakoen, who recreated the owls in vibrant yellows, oranges and greens.
Because Hobart’s ancestors couldn’t study the depths of the powerful Fraser River, which produced a needed bounty of salmon, nor could they scale the giant trees to study the crown canopy of the forest, they relied on certain animals to serve as messengers for the state of the ecosystem.
“If you wanted to know if the rivers were healthy, you looked at the salmon. And if you wanted to know if the forests were healthy, you looked at the spotted owls,” says Hobart. “They were messengers.”
Biologists call this an indicator species, meaning it functions as a barometer for the broader health of an ecosystem. In the case of the spotted owl, the fate of old-growth is linked to the decline of the bird. They are also an umbrella species: a creature selected for preservation because their recovery inadvertently helps myriad other plants and animals.
Alongside Indigenous oral history, American biologists uncovered the link between northern spotted owls and old-growth forests in the 1980s. For decades, owls in the region attracted little research interest. Most of the effort was instead focused on the fauna that were hunted for food, says Aaron Scott, host of the Timber Wars podcast.
“After all this time bushwhacking through the woods and following it, we finally realised the owl lived in old-growth. It depends on these forests to survive,” says Scott. “For environmentalists worried about old-growth logging, they were like ‘This could be kind of our silver bullet’.”
The discovery came amid a fierce battle, four decades ago, over the future of the region’s forests and the owl quickly became a tool for activists who rushed to file lawsuits, calling on the courts to halt logging to protect nesting sites.
Frustrated loggers, whose job prospects were already dwindling amid the mechanisation of the industry, began shooting the birds. “I love spotted owls … fried,” became a popular catchphrase. Another slogan declared: “Save the trees, wipe your ass with an owl.”
Susan Jane Brown, a senior lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Center in Washington state, has spent the past two decades fighting for the spotted owl and says a deep “emotional trauma” remains for everyone who was part of “the war in the woods”.
I think the spotted owl is going to go extinct in my lifetime. For someone who has spent their entire career trying to conserve the species, that’s a failure
Susan Jane Brown
Despite some decisive wins in protecting the forest, the prospects for the northern spotted owl in the US are also dire. As few as 3,000 remain in the Pacific Northwest, down from more than 15,000 in the 1990s, according to estimates from the US Forest Service. Environmental advocates see a bleak future for a species where the birthrate is collapsing in some areas by as much as 9% every year.
A larger, more opportunistic owl has spread aggressively across the region in recent decades. Barred owls, originally from eastern North America, consume a wider range of prey and are more adaptable to changing ecosystems than spotted owls, easily outcompeting them for increasingly scarce resources. Officials in the Pacific Northwest, as well as Canada, have approved widespread culls of the barred owl, killing the invader in order to give the spotted owls a chance to fight back. But experts worry the efforts are too late.
“I think the spotted owl is going to go extinct in my lifetime. And for someone who has spent their entire career trying to conserve the species, that’s a failure,” says Brown. “We spent billions and billions of dollars fighting over the owl and trying to conserve its habitat – in court and in Congress. And at the end of the day, you mean that none of that works?”
Earlier this year, Canada’s environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, warned an emergency order was needed to stem the owl’s rapid decline and the “imminent threats to its survival”. Emergency orders, a powerful tool within Canada’s endangered species legislation, have been used only three times in the country’s history, and grant the federal government jurisdiction over decisions typically reserved for a province. In this case, it would permit the federal government to dictate which forests are off limits to logging. The forestry industry, however, remains dominant in British Columbia, contributing nearly C$2bn to provincial government revenues and making up nearly one-third of the regional economy.
Guilbeault, a former environmental activist, has said old-growth logging must stop within the Spô’zêm Nation territory, including the Spuzzum and Utzlius watersheds, as well as a further 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) of forest habitat at risk. The British Columbia government deferred logging in those areas after the minister’s comments.
In early April, Guilbeault told the Guardian he hadn’t yet recommended the emergency order, hopeful he could negotiate a deal with the province to protect key habitat areas.
And yet in the time since he first suggested the order was imminent, two of the owls have died, highlighting their vulnerability and the precariousness of any recovery effort. When British Columbia released its plan for the spotted owl’s recovery in 2006, it hoped to have 250 mature owls in the wild, enough for a “self-sustaining” population. Today, there is just one.
“Our endangered species laws have been interpreted in a way that allows the province and the federal government to deflect responsibility back on to the other,” says Charlotte Dawe of the Wilderness Committee, an advocacy group that successfully fought, alongside EcoJustice, to have the federal environment minister threaten an emergency order. “And so the province goes on logging like it is business as usual.”
Geoff Senichenko, a mapper with the Wilderness Committee, points to the logging in owl habitat that was needed to allow the federally owned TransMountain pipeline expansions to go ahead. “Is this the project that will kill them off? No. But it’s yet another instance of habitat disappearing and so, in a way, it’s death by a thousand cut down trees.” He and others call it the “talk and log” strategy.
For advocacy groups, the inability of the British Columbia and Canadian governments to reverse the decline reflects a failure and weakness of the laws meant to protect endangered species. Canada’s environment commissioner agrees, suggesting in a scathing report that the federal government has abandoned its efforts, leaving grassroots organisations to fight for the province’s wildlife.
It was in 2007 that the world’s only captive breeding programme for the northern spotted owl was established as a way to increase numbers. Run largely on donations, the NSOBP hopes to one day release hundreds of owls into the wild. Currently, there are nearly 20 birds that could soon be ready.
On its website, the breeding facility points to the success of the California condor recovery programme, which brought a population of 22 wild birds to more than 330 in the wild. But the recent deaths of the two owls have been a blow to the breeding centre’s efforts.
“We spent countless hours nurturing these owls, from their first heartbeats to their first flights. It was an exciting and rewarding moment to finally see three of them released into the wild last summer,” Jasmine McCulligh, facility coordinator at the centre, said in a statement when the deaths were announced, adding “this is clearly not the result we had wished for”.
The federal government has long argued that Canada can be a climate leader. Prime minister Justin Trudeau says he sees no incompatibility between buying a multibillion-dollar pipeline, and Canada’s goal of lowering its emissions. But the plight of the owl, whose survival requires a halt to logging ancient forests, challenges this assumption. There can be owls, or there can be logging in the areas owls require for survival, but biologists agree both cannot exist.
Hobbs, who previously served as a scientific adviser to British Columbia’s spotted owl recovery team, says the current plight is a scathing indictment of the provincial government’s failure to recover the species and the “rapacious commercial greed” of the logging industry, which continues to cut down old-growth forests amid mounting public backlash. “I worked so hard to protect habitat, meanwhile the habitat kept rolling by on the back of the logging trucks every day that I was out there,” he says.
More likely than not, the spotted owl’s eradication is imminent, joining more than 130 other species that have disappeared from the Canadian wild.
Hope remains faint. The last ribbons of old-growth near the border could serve as a corridor, linking the lone female in Canada to the northernmost owls in the US. But each tree that gets cut down, and each day she remains alone in the woods, pushes her and the species towards oblivion.
“You will never, ever hear me say that it is not biologically or technically feasible to recover the species,” says Hobbs. “But every time you log old-growth forests, you reset the clock a few hundred years. We – and the owls – just need the passage of time.”
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