Northern Spotted Owl Essay

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The northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) became the focal point of a singular struggle in the annals of North American environmentalism when it was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in June of 1990. The listing signified and drew widespread attention to the conversion of old-growth forests to younger, ecologically simpler forests, and to a brewing scientific and political controversy. This controversy raised questions about the legitimacy of industrial forestry and state forest policy dedicated to ecological conversion and simplification for the purposes of commodity production. Yet, it also threw into sharp relief the scientific, political, and cultural underpinnings of Western environmentalism. The fight over whether or not to save the owl should in these respects be seen as a crucial episode in the politics of biodiversity conservation, and as an important case study of environmental regulation in liberal capitalist societies.

The northern spotted owl is found primarily in the so-called Douglas-fir region, running west of the Cascade Mountains, and south from southern British Columbia, Canada into northern California. Until the mid-1970s, very little was known to science about the owl, yet early surveys suggested its nearly unique dependence on relatively large, contiguous areas of old-growth forest. A key reason the owls require this habitat is that they tend to nest in the broken tree tops and snags that form in mature stands (stands with a preponderance of trees 175-250 years old or more).

State-sponsored and independent biological research in the 1980s tended to confirm that the owl was highly dependent on old growth, and also that populations were declining in parallel with the loss of old-growth forests due to industrial logging. This science, together with the naming of the owl as an “indicator species” by the U.S. Forest Service in the mid-1980s, provided the basis on which a sustained campaign was mounted by a loose coalition of environmental groups aiming to reign in logging and thereby preserve remaining stands of old growth.

This campaign gained considerable momentum when the owl was listed as officially threatened in 1990, but also from key judicial decisions forcing changes in the management of extensive federal forest lands in the U.S. Pacific Northwest where most of the remaining old growth was and is located. In 1993, a Forest Summit was convened by then U.S. President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore to attempt to resolve the pervasive stalemate, widely if somewhat erroneously framed as a jobs versus environment issue. A resulting federal plan prescribed reductions in annual timber sale quantities in affected federal forests by approximately 75 percent, while at the same time embracing ecosystem management principles.

The economic and ecological implications of this episode are still unfolding, and the fight is by no means over. While Canada has no comparable federal endangered species legislation to the American ESA, the owl is considered in peril in southwestern British Columbia. More broadly, the fight over the spotted owl in the 1990s precipitated considerable soul searching in academic and policy circles about the approach to environmental regulation institutionalized by the ESA, and the cultural politics of nature that underpin it.

Champions of strong biodiversity protections argue that mandatory preservation with real legal teeth, as evidenced by the 1973 ESA, provides the only means of arresting species and habitat loss. Critics argue such measures put nature-particularly charismatic creatures like the owl-before people (and jobs), denigrate work, and reflect dualistic views of nature and culture. These may be valid critiques. But it is also important to note that saving the owl was prescribed not only by the ESA, but by prior federal forest policy that designated it as an indicator species, a canary to the coal mine of Pacific Northwest temperate, old-growth forest ecosystems. This has been somewhat lost by the emphasis on individual species retention institutionalized by the ESA, and is ironic given that the longer term fallout from the owl’s listing has been a more substantive embrace of ecosystem management in federal forest policy.

It also bears noting that the ESA, for all its shortcomings, provides one of the few ways in which commercial exploitation of biophysical nature for the purposes of commodity production may be checked. Nevertheless, a search for ways to transcend the dichotomies of commodification and preservation is ongoing in the aftermath of the spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest, and beyond.


  1. B. Carey, “A Summary of the Scientific Basis for Spotted Owl Management,” in R.J. Gutierrez and A.B. Care, eds., Ecology and Management of the Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest (United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service PNW-185, 1985);
  2. D. Forsman, “Habitat Utilization by Spotted Owls in the West-Central Cascades of Oregon,” Dissertation, Biology (Oregon State University, 1980);
  3. F. Franklin et. al., Ecological Characteristics of Old-Growth DouglasFir Forests (U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service General Technical Report PNW-118, 1981);
  4. A.L. Hungerford, “Changing the Management of Public Land Forests: The Role of the Spotted Owl Injunctions (1993 Ninth Circuit Environmental Review),” Environmental Law (v.24/3, 2002);
  5. Shannon Petersen, Acting for Endangered Species: A Statutory Ark (University Press of Kansas, 2002);
  6. W.S. Prudham, Knock on Wood: Nature as Commodity in Douglas-Fir Country (Routledge, 2005);
  7. T. Satterfield, Anatomy of a Conflict: Identity, Knowledge, and Emotion in Old-Growth Forests (University of British Columbia Press, 2002);
  8. Simberloff, “The Spotted Owl Fracas: Mixing Academic, Applied, and Political Ecology,” Ecology (v.68/4, 1987);
  9. United States Forest Service Scientific Analysis Team and J. W. Thomas, Viability Assessments and Management Considerations for Species Associated with Late-Successional and Old-Growth Forests of the Pacific Northwest (U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Forest System, and Forest Service Research, 1993);
  10. White, ” “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?’ Work and Nature,” in W. Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (W.W. Norton, 1995).

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