ON THE HEELS of news that the northern spotted owl's population is rapidly declining in Washington, a Canadian environmental group will issue a report next week detailing the raptor's near- extinction in British Columbia. Southwestern British Columbia, the bird's only Canadian home, is the northernmost portion of the owl's 1,000-mile range.
"It's kind of like watching a car accident in slow motion," says Joe Foy, campaign director for the Western Canadian Wilderness Committee. "What's happened in the last four years is the collapse of the population."
Foy says that there are now only 25 spotted-owl pairs remaining in the Canadian province, a decrease of 40 percent since the late 1990s. The 10 percent a year decline is well ahead of the 5 percent a year decline in some parts of Washington (see "Spotted Owls on the Outs," Sept. 4).
The raptor is officially listed as endangered by the Canadian government; in the United States, it is listed as threatened.
"I don't see how they will survive," says Peter Hodum, a conservation biologist at California State University at Long Beach, who has reviewed the Canadian owl data. "They are in serious danger of extinction."
Hodum says that the spotted-owl population in Canada is so small that the species is incapable of propagating.
"We are very concerned about the status of the spotted owl," says Liz Bicknell, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land, and Air Protection, which oversees endangered species in the province. She did not dispute the group's data.
Both Hodum and Foy blame the population decrease on logging of spotted-owl habitat in old-growth forests.
A judge in British Columbia wrote in an opinion last month that the owl was on the verge of "extirpation" from the province and that the legislature could have, but had not passed, tougher logging laws to ensure the bird's survival.
In Washington, wildlife biologists are concerned about the survival of a spotted-owl pair on land owned by Plum Creek Timber northwest of Roslyn, on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. Plum Creek plans to clear-cut the land in coming months, according to Bob Jirsa, the company's director of corporate affairs.
"We'd like to see them do something different," says Paula Sweeden, forest habitat coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. This particular pair of birds, she says, is among the most reproductive in the east Cascades, having produced 17 offspring in the past 10 years. A spotted-owl pair typically mates every other year and produces one fledgling.
Sweeden says that it is legal for Plum Creek to cut around the owls' nesting area under terms of a 1996 agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But she says she hopes that Plum Creek sees this as a good opportunity to show that its eco-friendly image is more than P.R.
Officials from the state and Plum Creek were meeting this week to hatch a solution. Jirsa says the company will reach a decision on the owls within the next two weeks.