Once, emotions ran high over the declining population of the northern spotted owl. In the late 1980s, concern for the little nocturnal predator moved radical environmentalists to spike trees to protest timber clear-cutting that destroyed the owl's habitat. Loggers fumed.
But since stronger environmental regulations have slowed clear-cutting in the Pacific Northwest, there is nary a peep about the owl. What no one is saying is that its population is still plummeting.
Where are the environmental groups now? "When we poll people about environmental issues, we find that Joe and Jane Six-pack don't give a damn about spotted owls," says David Werntz, an ecologist with the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. He says the timber industry successfully portrayed the animal as the reason for layoffs: "The connection with the spotted owl is jobs vs. environment."
Reporting the owl's continued struggle could also undermine a tenuous political victory for environmentalists. A federal court banned the logging of public lands in 1991 to protect ancient forests and the spotted owl, among other species. Despite heavy criticism, President Clinton crafted a compromise in 1993 that preserved much of the forest protection.
Ironically, although it reduced timber harvests on Pacific Northwest national forests by 80 percent, the compromise also proved a boon for timber interests: It boosted timber prices and, for a time, companies enjoyed record profits.
Meanwhile, studies sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service show the adult female owl population declining by an annual average of 4.5 percent during the past decade, and the rate is accelerating. Eric Forsman, a forest service biologist, says that some young owls are successfully migrating out of the area. But, he says, "if you take the data at face value, you get some real scary predictions about a dramatic population decline."
"The owls are going away, and no one seems to care," says Michelle St. Peters, a biologist for Beak Consultants, which was hired by timber giant Weyerhaeuser to monitor owl nesting sites on its private land under a federal Habitat Conservation Plan. For each pair of mating owls, 70 acres are set aside before the surrounding timber can be clear-cut, though some experts say a 1,500-acre habitat is needed for a pair's survival.
"When Mom and Dad kick you out of the nest, you fly into the clear-cut," St. Peters says. There, fledglings are picked off by goshawks, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, and even bobcats. "Conservation groups have let the whole thing go," she says.
Environmentalists are busy with new battles. Last year, congressional Republicans opened some national forests so companies could salvage dead timber. Although this also threatens the owl's habitat, conservation groups such as the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife have instead focused on the endangerment of other species, most notably salmon whose spawning streams have been decimated.
Why would people be less interested in saving the spotted owl than in saving salmon? Simple: People want to eat salmon. "It's part of the mythology of the Northwest," says Werntz. "Everyone thinks you put a stick in the water and eat salmon for dinner every night."