Does anybody give a hoot?

From poster child to neglected stepchild

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


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.”

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate