EPA saving species for 40 years

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer December 27, 2013 09:00 pm

If you’ve seen a short-tailed albatross lately, you can chalk it up in part to the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency, which turns 40 years old this year.

Not everyone in Oregon is enamored with the EPA’s Endangered Species Act — ask anyone who detests the northern spotted owl — but the creation of the list has helped save from extinction or at least increase the numbers of thousands of critters throughout the nation.

The ESA was approved by President Richard Nixon on Dec. 28, 1973, and in the intervening years has gone on to keep from extinction almost three dozen species of plants and animals.

As of last fall, there were about 2,100 species listed, but others are no longer under consideration, as listing takes time, and some are now extinct.

But the protections provided under the ESA have helped save many now-well-known species, including the bald eagle, whooping crane, sea otters, the gray whale and the gray wolf.

Love ’em or hate ’em, they’ve returned, in many cases, to healthier population numbers.

Curry County’s got a few of its own, too, described as species that live, periodically live or could survive in the relatively balmy climate of Oregon.

Included is the leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles and the humpback and killer whales. Seven other endangered species live within the state, but not in the southwestern corner. And only one — the western lily — is among the nine endangered plant species that calls Curry County home.

Success … and not

The ESA has been critical in fully recovering 31 species, including the bald eagle, eastern

population of Steller sea lion, American alligator, Lake Erie water snake and the Virginia northern flying squirrel.

Some have been brought back from the brink, such as the red wolf, which was down to 17 animals in 1980 before it was listed; as of 2003, there were 257. The same can be said of the black-footed ferret, whose population went from from 18 in 1986 to 600 in 2006.

Some protections haven’t worked, and animals have gone extinct. Critics note that only 28 species have been delisted due to recovery — a 1 percent success rate — showing that reform is needed to actually help the endangered plants and animals.

Of note is the northern spotted owl, which, despite 30 years of keeping loggers out of the forest — and the old-growth habitat the birds prefer — have actually decreased 40 percent in population, at a rate of 2.9 percent a year.

And more trouble looms, with the barred owl that has in the past several years encroached on the spotted owl’s preferred territory.

Human activities started creating habitat corridors leading from the east that enabled the barred owls to make headway into the spotted owl’s territory. Larger and more aggressive than the little northern owl, the barred owls displace their spotted brethren, disrupt their nesting cycles and compete for food. There have also been instances of barred owls interbreeding with, or killing, spotted owls, according to a fact sheet released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To keep the barred owl at bay, officials have taken to the woods to shoot the bird in the past year. Efforts on a larger scale will get underway next spring.

“We observe that, as the number of barred owls detected in historical northern spotted owl territories increase, the number of spotted owls decrease,” a March 2012 USFW paper reads. “In the US, the density of barred owls appears greatest in Washington where barred owls have been present the longest and spotted owl populations have declined at the greatest rate in these areas.”

Additionally, northern spotted owl populations have been declining for many years, and the presence of barred owls exacerbates the decline and now is more strongly correlated with spotted owl population trends than the presence of protected habitat.

“This could result in the local extinction or near extinction of the northern spotted owl from a substantial portion of their historical range, even if other known threats, such as habitat loss, continue to be addressed,” the paper reads.

Evolution?

Some say the barred owl infringing upon the spotted owl’s habitat is merely nature — and perhaps evolution — running its course and shouldn’t be addressed by man.

“Efforts to stabilize or increase spotted owls numbers have cost American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, been partly responsible for unprecedented numbers of catastrophic wildfires, caused the loss of tens of thousands tax-producing jobs for western US families, created economic hardships for hundreds of rural counties, towns, and industries, and indirectly resulted in the deaths of millions of native plants and animals,” said  Bob Zybach, project manager with ORWW, a Philomath-based educational nonprofit that studies stewardship of the state’s water resources. “The scientific basis for these plans should be considered in full light of public and scientific review before they are continued much longer.”

“Experimental” areas — where the owls will be shot — include the Cle Elum in Washington, half the combined Oregon Coast ranges and Veneta in Oregon, the Union/Myrtle (Klamath) in southern Oregon, and the Hoopa (Willow Creek) in California. Work is scheduled to begin next spring.

This 30-year plan anticipates that “recovery of the spotted owl can be accomplished” if scientists are successful in reducing competition from the barred owl. With strong habitat conservation and forest restoration, the USFW maintains “there is a good chance of succeeding in recovering the spotted owl over the long term if we adequately address the barred owl threat in the short term.”

That still doesn’t address the fact that, even without the barred owl’s presence, protecting old growth forest and banning logging from federally-owned lands has not helped the spotted owl’s population to rebound, as many studies confirm.