In the last section, we reviewed some early estimates of the decline in spotted owl population in Washington State. In this section, we will assess the past and current spotted owl population on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains and then review how the Navy War Zone plan would likely destroy this last refuge of spotted owls in Washington State.
Will exposure to 120 to 150 decibels of noise from Growler Jets harm spotted owls and marbled murrelets?
This question is important because, while humans are not protected by the Endangered Species Act, spotted owls and marbled murrelets are protested by clear and specific court orders. The Forest Service and the Navy may be able to ignore harm these toxic new Growler Jets might inflict on humans. But neither federal agency is legally allowed to ignore the harm these jets might inflict on endangered species. In the 1990's, I produced a study on the decline of spotted owls in Washington State. This study concluded that the largest population of spotted owls left in Washington State was on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains – right in the middle of what the Navy now wants to use for an electronic warfare range for their new Growler jets. In 1994, as part of the 1994 Record of Agreement, the National Forest Service and the National Park Service signed an agreement to protect the critical habitat of spotted owls on the western slopes of the Olympics. Allowing Growler Jets anywhere near this critical habitat would be a violation of the 1994 ROD. Here is some of the research on this subject.
How close are spotted owls to the extinction threshold cliff?
We have previously shown that in 1994, there were about 900 pairs of spotted owls in Washington State. Since about one third of the remaining Old Growth Forest in Washington State is on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains, we can assume that about one third of these 900 pairs of spotted owls – or 300 pairs of spotted owls – lived on the west slopes of the Olympic Mountains in 1994. Forsman and others have concluded that the rate of decline of the spotted owl population in the Olympic Mountains is 4% - or significantly less than in the rest of the State of Washington where the rate of decline was from 5% to 7%.
Moreover, in the previous section, I used theories from E. O. Wilson to estimate that the Extinction Threshold in Washington State was 300 pairs of spotted owls. This means that the Extinction Threshold in the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains would be 100 pairs of spotted owls. This would mean 20 or fewer pairs of spotted owls at each of the western Olympic Mountains five great rivers: the Sol Duc, the Bogachiel, the Hoh, the Queets and the Quinault.
Needless to say, all five of these major rivers and all five remaining populations of spotted owls are being targeted for as part of the Navy's proposed war zone. In 1994, there were about 300 pairs of spotted owls in these five major river basins. This would mean about 60 pairs of spotted owls in each basin. At the 4% rate of decline determined by Forsman and others, this would mean a loss of 12 owl pairs out of the original 300 owl pairs per year or 24 owl pairs every 2 years. Below is a graph of how long it would take the spotted owls at this rate to reach the extinction threshold of 100 owl pairs.
Thus, even without the Navy War Zone, the spotted owls in the western Olympic Mountains are hanging on by a thread. Without major changes by the US Forest Service and/or the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, the spotted owls in the western Olympic Mountains will pass the extinction threshold somewhere around the year 2020. Even today, in 2014, there are only about 116 spotted owls left in the western Olympic Mountains. It will only take the loss of 16 more owls to push the owls over the extinction threshold cliff.
Understanding the Extremely Quiet World of Spotted Owls
We will next look at the aspects of the Navy War Zone plan that will certainly push the majority if not all of the remaining spotted owls in the western Olympic Mountains off of the Extinction Threshold cliff. Owls have evolved many important adaptations which help them hunt in the extremely quiet world of an Old Growth Forest. These include large heads, accommodating large eyes and ears, extremely mobile heads, capable of rotating 270 degrees to point their ears in the sound of their prey, asymmetrical ears, able to calculate flight angles of prey and feathers that absorb all sound, creating silent flight. All of these adaptations are intended for success in a quiet environment!
Comparing the Extreme Noise of a Military Jet to a Human Conversation
The decibel system (dB) uses sound ratings whereby every 10 decibels represents a doubling of the sound volume. Since this is a difficult system for most folks to understand, below is a visual comparison of various decibel numbers.
Comparing the Extreme Quiet of the Hoh Rain Forest to a Normal Conversation
Humans live in an extremely noisy world compared to the extremely quiet world of spotted owls. Our ears have gotten used to this noise and even manage to screen much of it out. In addition, if the noise level in our world gets too loud, we can cover our ears with our hands or put on commercial grade ear mufflers. The spotted owls do not have hands and do not have access to ear mufflers. The average sound level in an Old Growth forest is 20 decibels. To a spotted owl, even a human whisper, which is 30 decibels, would sound loud. The Hoh Rain Forest has been measured as 10 decibels – one of the quietest places on earth. Below is a graph comparing the sound in the Hoh Rain Forest to a normal human conversation.
In the extremely quiet world of spotted owls, even a human whisper is loud. With their ears adjusted for such a quiet world, a normal human conversation sounds to spotted owls much like a jet aircraft sounds to us. This is why the US Fish and Wildlife Service advises field monitors to be extremely quiet while doing field surveys of spotted owls.
2006 US Fish and Wildlife Service Report on the Importance of Quiet for Birds
“Birds more than most any vertebrate group other than primates, make use of a rich array of sounds for communicating, finding mates, expressing territorial occupation, and numerous other social behaviors. But hearing is also more than this. Birds, as other animals, also use hearing to learn about their overall environments – in effect, they use sound to sample what Bregman (1991) called the “acoustic scene.” This acoustic scene is the array of sounds in the environment which may arise from biological or non-biological sources such as predators moving through the environment or the wind moving through trees. This acoustic scene covers an area all around an animal, and it is just as rich at night as it is in daylight. In effect, the acoustic scene enables an animal to “see” beyond its eyes and learn a great deal about its extended environment. From the perspective of this Report, we must consider that both environmental and communication sounds are important in the lives of birds. Thus, while we tend to think in terms of effects of human-generated sounds on communication, it must be kept in mind that the use of sound by birds extends beyond sounds used for communication to the much larger acoustic scene. Such sounds enable birds to be aware of their whole (acoustic) environment. When noise interferes with a bird sampling the environment and learning the relationship among sound sources and the environment, the individual, and perhaps the species, is at risk.”
An Important Characteristic of Old Growth Forests is that they are very quiet
The Sound Level in the Western Slopes of the Olympics has been rated as the quietest in the United States. A location in the Hoh River valley was identified as the quietest place in the lower 48 (see https://onesquareinch.org/). This unique aspect of the Olympic Mountains is one of the reasons tourists come to visit it. They come for the silence. In fact, one center that treats veterans for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is located on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains precisely because of this quietness and the therapeutic value it has on soldier recovery. According to Richard A. Jahnke, President of the Admiralty Audubon Society: “Portable diesel generators required for the mobile emitters and frequent overflights by fighter jets - audible for many miles in all directions - will certainly degrade the soundscape of this location and make it less desirable for tourists - a hardship for an already economically challenged region.”
The “One Square Inch” marker, located 3 miles east of the Hoh Rain Forest Visitors Center, and in the middle of one of the most ancient forests in the world is considered the quietest place in the United States by sound researcher Gordon Hempton - with a decibel rating of 10 decibels. A normal Old Growth forest is 20 decibels and a human whisper is 30 decibels. The Navy proposes to locate Electronic Warfare Transmission Site 12 only 3 miles west of the Hoh Rain Forest Visitors Center and then attack Site 12 thousands of times with hundreds of Growler Military Jets which have a decibel rating as high as 150 decibels.
One Square Inch of Silence
Here are links to a couple of 3 minute YouTube videos about the One Square Inch project. Sound researcher, Gordon Hempton, explains the importance of one square inch of silence. Also visit https://onesquareinch.org/
The US Fish and Wildlife Service surveying protocol specifically warns against excessive noise as being harmful to spotted owls:
“PROTOCOL FOR SURVEYING PROPOSED MANAGEMENT ACTIVITIES THAT MAY IMPACT NORTHERN SPOTTED OWLS Endorsed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , February 2, 2011 , Revised January 9, 2012
This protocol should also be applied to activities that disrupt essential breeding activities and to activities that may injure or otherwise harm spotted owl other than through habitat modification (e.g., noise disturbance, smoke from prescribed fire)... Do not broadcast loudly and do not use agitated or barking calls near a potentially active nest – this could agitate the female more than necessary or draw females off the nest.
10.3 If Spotted Owls Are Detected in the Spot Check Area: If spotted owls are detected in the spot check area, ALL ongoing operations that have a likelihood of direct harm to a spotted owl and/or creating above-ambient noise shall be postponed. ”
On July 31, 2006, the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Service Office of the U. S. Fish and
Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued guidance for estimating the effects of auditory and visual disturbance to Northern Spotted Owls and Marbled Murrelets in Northwestern California. The purpose of this guidance was to promote consistent and reasonable determinations of effects for activities that occur in or near northern spotted owl or marbled murrelet suitable habitat and result in elevated human generated sounds or human activities in close proximity to nest trees. The guidance applies to activities which have the potential to harass the northern spotted owl or the marbled murrelet as a result of substantially elevated sound levels or human presence near nests during the breeding season. The USFWS acknowledges that their report is to be viewed as a living document subject to continued, ongoing revision and improvement as additional data and experience are acquired.
The USFWS document provides guidance as to how a person in the field should make
determinations with regard to the potential effects of construction and highway noise on these two avian species. This guidance is particularly valuable because it takes into consideration critical variables and tries to integrate them into a simple practical model. These variables include: types of sound sources, distances from the sound sources to the birds, level of ambient noise in the environment, levels of anthropogenic (human-generated) noise, sound-modifying features of the environment, visual cues correlated with the noise, and the hearing sensitivity of the bird. In this regard, the USFWS report provides an extremely worthwhile potential strategy for estimating noise effects.
The noise levels discussed in the USFWS (2006) guidance are geared toward those that result in harassment or ‘flushing’ from the roost or nest. Independent, or in addition to, these effects, is the possibility of a more insidious effect of continuous highway noise on birds that rely on acoustic communication and song learning. The ability of conspecific birds to communicate acoustically may be affected by low levels of noise. Independently of such masking effects, birds may be driven from the area by flushing from either noise alone or some acoustic-visual stimulus. Table 2 summarizes typical maximum noise levels at 50 feet produced by typical construction equipment (FTA 2006). In contrast to traffic noise, noise from construction equipment acts like a point source and will typically drop off at a rate of 6 dB per doubling of distance.
The Effect of Toxic Noise on Spotted Owls
A study titled "Impacts of Acute and Long-Term Vehicle Exposure on Physiology and Reproductive Success of the Northern Spotted Owl" published in Ecosphere, June 2011, found that while the spotted owl is able to compensate for a low level of increased noise pollution and vehicle presence up to a threshold, "beyond which disturbance impacts may be greatly magnified - and even cause system collapse... Reproductive success is higher close to quiet roads (likely due to better feeding). However, proximity to roads with high noise (i.e. traffic) decreases spotted owl reproductive success." This study found a direct relationship between habitat quietness and spotted owl reproduction.
The Effect of Highway Noise on Birds
In 2007, the California Highway Department conducted a series of studies on the effect of highway construction and operation noise on birds. They found that toxic noise caused specific measurable harm on bird behavior and bird physiology. The louder the noise was, the fewer the number of birds there were. Noise caused problems in birds communicating with other family members and caused problems in birds locating prey or being aware that predators were hunting them. Noise also increased stress and reduced nesting and production of offspring.
“Three classes of potential effects of traffic noise on birds are identified. These are:
(1) physiological and behavioral effects;
(2) damage to hearing from acoustic over-exposure; and
(3) masking of important bio-acoustic and communication signals all of which may also lead to dynamic behavioral and population effects. These three classes of effects lead to separate, but overlapping harm.”
Based on this research, scientists recommended guidelines divided into four zones:
Zone 1: If a bird is in this zone, traffic and construction noise can potentially result in hearing loss, threshold shift, masking, and/or other behavioral and/or physiological effects. Continuous noise levels above 110 dB or a single blast noise over 140 dB for multiple blasts) will likely result in damage.
Zone 2: At greater distances from the highway, starting where the noise levels fall
below 110 dB continuous exposure, hearing loss and permanent threshold shift are
unlikely to occur. However, highway noise above 93 dB SPL might still temporarily
elevated a bird’s threshold, mask important communication signals, and possibly lead to
other behavioral and/or physiological effects.
Zone 3: At greater distances from the highway, but where the spectrum level of the highway noise is still at or above the natural ambient noise level, masking of communication signals from highway noise will occur beyond that which already occurs from natural ambient noise. This in turn may also result in behavioral and/or physiological effects.
Zone 4: Once the level of highway noise falls below ambient noise levels in the critical
frequencies for communication, masking of communication signals is no longer an issue.
Such guidelines are done in coordination and consultation with compliance protocols for the Federal Endangered Species Act.
Note that the sound of a Growler jet is even greater than the sound of a highway jack hammer!
The informal, but well known, 60 dB(A) noise level for evaluating the effects of noise on avian acoustic communication was based on the facts and reasoning presented above. The question posed was this: At what noise level, above that of a quiet natural environment, could one begin to see effects of highway noise on avian vocal communication? A quiet, natural environment was taken to be an overall sound pressure level of approximately 45-55 dB(A) - typical of a quiet rural to suburban area. Decisions by regulators must take into account the existing ambient noise levels in the region where the highway is being constructed and operated. Since communication – not just detection of a sound - is the animal’s goal, arguing for a lower noise level guideline of 55 dB(A) is probably safer and more realistic.
There is considerable evidence that road noise can contribute to stress and alter human
physiology in many ways (Miller 1974; NIH, 1990; Ohrstrom and Rylander 1982; Ohrstrom and Bjorkman, 1983; Ouis 2001). While caution should rule in the extrapolation of data from humans to birds or other animals, the many similarities in physiology between humans and birds, and the reliance of both on sound for communication, suggests the possibility that stress and physiological effects on humans may be paralleled in birds (and other terrestrial vertebrates). There is direct evidence that highway noise may affect birds (e.g., Foppen and Reijnen 1994; Reijnen et al. 1995; Forman et al. 2002),
In one series of papers, Reijnen and colleagues (Reijnen and Foppen 1994, 1995; Reijnen et al. 1995a, b; reviewed in Reijnen et al. 1995c) examined the effects of motorway traffic on breeding bird populations in the Netherlands. Reijnen and his colleagues concluded that highway noise has an impact on birds within several hundred meters of the highway. They also concluded that highway noise lowers the extent of bird breeding near highways.
Stone (2000) did transects to determine bird populations over a wide range of land use types. The results led to the suggestion that there is a marked decrease in bird populations in noisier areas, Peris and Pescador (2004) provided sound level measures at distances of 50-100 m from the roadways. They reported that the high traffic volume area had sound levels of 69±5 dB, medium density 46±3 dB, and low density at 36±2 dB (it was not indicated if this was dB SPL or dBA). Peris and Pescador (2004) showed that there were differences between the number of birds and the extent of breeding populations in each of the three areas.
The Effect of Aircraft Noise on Birds
Studies and reviews of the effects of highway noise are often included in a broader
literature on the effects of other noise sources, most notably those produced by aircraft (airplane or helicopter) over-flight, on birds (e.g., Brown 1990). Generally aircraft noise is far more intense than noise from roadways. Moreover, exposure to aircraft noise is highly intermittent, whereas highway noise can often be characterized and modeled as a continuous, lower level, noise source.
It is widely known that exposure to high level sounds can alter the physiology and structure of terrestrial vertebrates (e.g., Fletcher and Busnel 1978; Saunders et al. 1991). Moreover, there are standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recognizing that high levels of background sound have an impact on human well-being (e.g., Miller 1970; NIH 1990; von Gierke and Eldred 1993; Pearsons et al. 1995). These changes may include cellular changes, organ system changes, or stress level effects caused by exposure to sound. These standards also recognize that lower level sounds for extended periods of time can have a range of effects on humans and other animals.
Forest Service Manuals for the Olympic National Forest Specifically State that Toxic Noise is “Likely to Adversely Affect” spotted owls and marbled murrelets:
Biological Opinion for Effects to Northern Spotted Owls, Critical Habitat for Northern Spotted Owls, Marbled Murrelets, Critical Habitat for Marbled Murrelets, Bull Trout, and Critical Habitat for Bull Trout from Selected Programmatic Forest Management Activities March 25,2013 to
December 31,2023 on the Olympic National Forest Washington. (USFWS Reference: 13410-2009-F-0388).
Here is more from Forest Service Manuals:
126.96.36.199 Marbled Murrelet
Marbled murrelets are sensitive to human disturbance, especially during the nesting season. Loss of suitable nesting habitat is one of the primary threats to marbled murrelet survival. Effect determinations are highly dependent upon the proximity of project activity to potential nesting areas and foraging habitat, activity noise levels, removal of suitable nesting habitat, and project timing in relation to the nesting season.
Many project types may warrant a determination of no effect on marbled murrelets. Examples of such projects include the following:
Projects located more than 55 miles from the marine environment
Projects that are at least 1 mile (if impact pile driving), or at least 0.25 mile for all other activities from suitable nesting habitat.
Projects that occur greater than 33 feet from suitable nesting habitat during the nesting season, do not increase background noise within suitable nesting habitat by more than 3 dBA
(This means that any toxic noise project within 1 mile of marble murrelets and/or increase background noise more than 3 decibels must be examine for noise impact)
188.8.131.52 Northern Spotted Owl
Projects that involve clearing of mature coniferous forest could adversely affect spotted owl
habitat. Loss of suitable nesting habitat is one of the primary threats to spotted owl survival.
Conditions for NE and NLTAA effect determinations depend upon proximity of the project
and include activity to nesting habitat, activity noise levels, modification of suitable habitat, and timing of activity in relation to the nesting season.
Activities that require evaluation include;
Activities conducted at any time within suitable spotted owl habitat that
1) produce noise at or below background noise levels,
Projects that do not remove dispersal habitat and are at least 1 mile (if blasting),
Examples of project types that may warrant a determination of likely to adversely affect northern spotted owls include the following: blasting and pile driving)
(This means that any toxic noise project within 1 mile of marble murrelets and/or increase background noise more than 3 decibels must be examine for noise impact)
The Adverse Effect of Electromagnetic Radiation on Birds
“The Navy's assessment includes little discussion of indirect impacts of EMR on wildlife and does not incorporate the most recent, best available science. For example, Engels et al. 2014 documents that low levels of EMR interferes with the magnetic navigation systems of migrating birds. The importance and implications of these results have further been discussed by Morrison (2014) and Kirschvink (2014). These articles have been published in Nature, one of the most prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific publications in the world of science. The Navy's EA does not acknowledge this potential impact. As use of magnetic navigation is widespread in nature, these results may be general applicability.”
“As part of the Pacific Flyway, the Pacific coast is a critical pathway for migratory birds, with an estimated 1 billion birds migrating along the flyway annually. In their five-year strategic plan, the National Audubon Society specifically advocates for the protection of coastal species and habitats with the goal of supporting a healthy Pacific Flyway. In general, taking or adversely impacting migratory birds is prohibited as part of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Exceptions are allowed, however, for military readiness training. Nevertheless, as stated on page 3.2-3 of the Navy's EA, "... the Armed Forces must confer and cooperate with USFWS on the development and implementation of conservation measures to minimize or mitigate adverse effects of a military readiness activity if it determines that such activity may have a 'significant adverse effect' on the population of a migratory bird species." Since successful migration is critical to the survival of a migrating species, potential navigational impacts must evaluated. However, these potential impacts are not considered in the current EA and hence the potential impacts were not assessed.”
Richard provides the following scientific references to support his conclusions:
Engels, S., Schneider, N-L., Lefeldt, N., Hein, C., Zapka, M., Michalik, A., Elberts, D., Kittel, A., Hore, P., and Mouritsen, H. (2014) Anthropogenic electromagnetic noise disrupts magnetic compass orientation in a migratory bird. Nature, v. 509: 353 - 356. (doi10.1038/nature13290).
Morrison, J. (2014) Electronics' noise disorients migratory birds. (doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15176)
Kirschvink, J. L. (2014) Radio waves zap biomagnetic compass. Nature, v. 509: 296 – 297.
Why is the US Forest Service deliberately accelerating the destruction of the spotted owl and marbled murrelet population in Washington State?
While the National Park Service has complied with the Endangered Species Act and taken significant steps to protect spotted owls and Old Growth Forest, there appears to be many in the Forest Service who are in favor of logging and therefore resent and oppose the Endangered Species Act. They may see the demise of the spotted owl as allowing them to go back to the glory days and huge profits and power that would come from the return of unrestricted logging on Forest Service land without the need to fill out all of the troublesome Endangered Species Act paperwork just to cut down a bunch of trees. Federal agencies, such as the US Forest Service, have been issuing owl "take permits" and allowing timber sales in critical habitat for years. These permits allow agencies to proceed with timber sales even though there are documented spotted owls using the area. These "take permits" are essentially "kill permits," allowing the degradation of critical habitat and the killing of spotted owls, both of which are antithetical to the intentions set forth in the Endangered Species Act. In August 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Gifford Pinchot Task Force v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ruled that the Endangered Species Act "was written not merely to forestall the extinction of species ... but to allow a species to recover to the point where it may be delisted." In short, the US Forest Service is not allowed to simply passively stand by and let the Navy destroy the spotted owls.
Andy Stahl, the Executive Director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics wrote the following: The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) requires that “permits.. for the use and occupancy of National Forest System lands shall be consistent with the land management plans.” The Wenatchee National Forest’s 1990 land and resource management plan (LRMP) requires that “where a special use can be accommodated on private or other land, National Forest land will not be used.” Wenatchee LRMP at IV-55; see also Okanogan LRMP at Standard 16-3 (“Grant new authorizations only where... private land is not available to accommodate the use”). The Forest Service appears to take the position that a Master Agreement (“MA”) executed in 1988 between the Forest Service and the Defense Department trumps the LRMPs’ standards. To the contrary, the Master Agreement itself requires that military use permits be “in conformity with applicable forest plan(s). https://www.fs.fed.us/dirindexhome/fsm/1500/1533-1533.1.txt. Thus, the Master Agreement reiterates that the LRMP controls. However, even if the Master Agreement were silent on the matter, the law, i.e., the National Forest Management Act, trumps an inter-departmental agreement... The Forest Service should deny the Navy’s application for a special-use permit because the proposed use is not one authorized by Congress and inconsistent with the governing forest plans.
Ironically, even if the spotted owls go extinct, the Forest Service will not be able to escape ESA paperwork and court sanctions. There will still be many other Endangered Species requiring protection from unrestricted logging. These include not only marbled murrelet but also the salmon fishery here in Washington State. Unlike spotted owls, the salmon industry produces a lot of money and food for the people of the Northwest. Folks will likely demand better protection for Salmon and for water quality than was given for protection of spotted owls and Old Growth forests.
What can be done to stop this monstrous plan to turn the Olympic Peninsula into a war zone? In the final section of our five part report, we will look at things we can do individually and together to stop the Forest Service and the Navy from destroying the Olympic Peninsula. 2.1 History of Past Attempts to Save the Spotted Owls In 1974, forty years ago, I graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Science Education from Washington State University. My first job was building an Alternative Education program for the Lakota Sioux in Rapid City South Dakota. As I had been hiking, climbing and skiing all of my life, I was put in charge of developing the Outdoor Education portion of this program. This meant taking Native American kids out to the mountains where they could reconnect with the history of their culture. After this program, I went back to Seattle, Washington and began teaching environmental and outdoor education programs at the Experimental College at the University of Washington.
After a few years of teaching at various colleges, I began the Outdoor and Environmental Program at Bellevue College where I taught for 20 years from 1984 to 2004. During this time, I was also a leader in several local Environmental Clubs and organizations including the Sierra Club and the Seattle Mountaineers. Here I met most of the leaders of the environmental movement in Washington State in the late 1980s.
During my hundreds and perhaps thousands of wilderness outings between 1974 and 1994, I had a first row seat in watching the destruction of the Old Growth forests in Washington State. There had been a radical change in logging practices where by historical and slow logging methods were replaced by much more rapid mechanical methods. Whole forests could be destroyed by large machines leading to huge layoffs in local logging communities as men were replaced by machines and were no longer needed. These new machines could take down more trees in a day than a team of men could take down in a year. The machines would leave behind devastated landscapes that looked more like the surface of the moon than the surface of the earth.
These machines led leaders of the environmental movement in Washington State to sue the Forest Service in the 1980s for failing to maintain sustainable forest practices. We used a species of owl called the spotted owl as an indicator species of the health and viability of the Old Growth forest. These law suits eventually led to the US Fish and Wildlife Service declaring spotted owls as an endangered species in 1990 which in turn led a federal judge. William Dwyer, to halt logging of Old Growth forests in 1991. The decision was called Seattle Audubon III. After being elected President in 1992, Clinton ordered a meeting of environmentalists and logging companies and the forest service in Portland Oregon in 1993. Together, these groups negotiated a compromise called the Northwest Forest Plan that was supposed to provide protected habitat for spotted owls by eliminating logging on most Old Growth Forests. The plan was approved in 1994 by Judge Dwyer and is known as the 1994 Record of Decision. The plan used a concept developed by E.O. Wilson called Clusters and Corridors where by spotted owls would have home communities and could migrate between home communities to avoid genetic isolation and preserve genetic diversity. The single most important cluster was the spotted owl population on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains in and near Olympic National Park.
The owners of logging companies blamed the spotted owls for the loss of logging jobs. But the truth was that 90% of all logging job losses occurred 20 years before the first actions were taken to protect the last remaining stands of Old Growth forests. As the following chart shows, what caused the decline in logging jobs was not spotted owls, but greedy corporations who replaced their workers with machines to increase corporate profits.
Source: Freudenburg, William R.; Lisa J. Wilson; Daniel O'Leary (1998). "Forty Years of Spotted Owls? A Longitudinal Analysis of Logging-Industry Job Losses". Sociological Perspectives 41 (#1): pp. 1–2
In 1994, after the new Forest Service Plan was adopted, I wrote a book about the Old Growth Forests and the need to protect endangered species. This book as available for free download at the following link:
Why are spotted owls and marbled murrelets important?
Spotted owls are indicator species in that they can be used as a visible measure of the health of hundreds of other species in an ecosystem we call an old growth forest. Protecting spotted owl habitat also protects the habitat of hundreds of other important and unique species of plants and animals. Over 90% of the original old growth forests have already been lost to logging and will take 200 to 500 years to recover. Protection of spotted owls began in the 1990s. Owners of saw mills falsely blamed the decline in logging jobs on efforts to protect spotted owls. In fact, the primary loss of jobs in the logging industry was not spotted owls – it was automation of logging practices.
King County Snoqualmie River Middle Fork Planning Commission
One of the requirements of the 1994 Record of Decision was that a series of “clusters” be established in Washington State to act as home bases for spotted owls. These are primarily located at relatively low elevation forests in National Parks and wilderness areas. However, it was known that the distance between the cluster at Mount Rainier National Park and the cluster in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area were too far apart – and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area near Snoqualmie Pass was too high in elevation to provide suitable habitat for spotted owls. It was therefore wisely decided by all parties to turn the Upper Middle Fork Valley east of North Bend Washington into a semi-wilderness area. This would require cooperation from the US Forest Service and the Washington State DNR which managed the Mount Si Conservation area - thousands of acres of wildlife habitat near North Bend.
A King County Commission, called the Middle Fork Planning Commission was formed to plan the future of this new wilderness area. Coincidentally, my home (which has an Old Growth forest on a portion of it) was located in the middle of this conservation area. I was therefore appointed to this King County Commission and helped write the plan to preserve the Old Growth forests in the Upper Snoqualmie River Valley. During this time, I became more aware of the DNR plans to save (or destroy) the spotted owl population in Washington State. My home is not far from where this picture was taken.
Early attempts to analysis the rate of decline of our Spotted Owl Population
In support of the environmental lawsuits trying to stop the extinction of spotted owls, in the early 1990s, I conducted a series of studies on the decline of the population of spotted owls in Washington State. This was difficult as the Forest Service refused to pay for studies of spotted owl populations. We all knew what the answer would be. So I had to use other measures to proxy the spotted owl population.
In 1996, while I was serving on the Middle Fork Commission, as a part of the negotiated settlement to resume logging on Washington State DNR lands, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources produced 2 documents totally more than 1,000 pages describing their proposed Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). This plan was supposed to be similar to and supplement the federal forest plan. Instead, as I read the plan, it became obvious that the Washington State DNR was attempting to carry on its “logging as usual” by grossly distorting the scientific literature on standards to protect spotted owls. The State HCP basically said “Let us log Old Growth Forests now and we promise we will provide the owls with suitable habitat 50 years from now.”
On May 18, 1996, I provided the US Fish and Wildlife officials who were reviewing the State HCP with a detailed 20 page analysis showing that if the State Plan was adopted – allowing them to kill hundreds of spotted owls – that there would not be any spotted owls left 50 years from now.
I have posted this initial analysis elsewhere on this website for those who would like to read the entire 20 page report. But I will briefly summarize the results here. At the time, there were only two official studies on spotted owl population rates of decline in Washington State. One somewhat biased study concluded the rate of decline was only one percent per year. The other better done study concluded the rate of decline was 12% per year. The State DNR plan used the more optimistic rate of 1 percent decline and ignored the other study completely. I argued that this violated the Endangered Species Act which called for using the “best available science.” I argued that, in the absence of other information, the weighted average of the two studies should be used. This would mean an assumed rate of decline of 5% per year.
Next I estimated the spotted owl population in Washington State based on the two most reliable sources available at that time. Here is a quote from my report to the US Fish and Wildlife Service: “The actual Spotted Owl population currently existing in Washington state is unknown. The U.S.F.W.S. stated (in their Draft E.A.A. for the 4(d) Rule, Page 69, 1995) that there are 762 known activity centers (pairs and singles) in Washington state. A survey of Washington state Wildlife biologists indicated an estimate of about 900 (or less) total owl pairs (including known and unknown owls) at the present time (1995). I therefore used an estimate of 900 spotted owl pairs in 1995 in Washington State.
I next used the theories of biologist E. O. Wilson to estimate the “extinction threshold” below which it would be very difficult to restore spotted owls to a viable population. The details of this analysis are provided in my report. My conclusion was that the extinction threshold is about 300 pairs of Spotted Owls for the entire State. I then provided a table of the decline in spotted owl populations based upon six different sets of assumptions. Below is a graph showing the rate of decline for what I described as the most likely scenario which was a rate of decline of 5% per year.
As you can see from the above graph, I predicted in 1996 that if the rate of decline was 5%, then the spotted owls in Washington State would pass the Extinction Threshold of 300 pairs in about 2014.
Sadly, the US Fish and Wildlife Service ignored my study. However, it was widely shared in the environmental community. In 2003, the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance was conducting a review of the Washington State DNR Habitat Conservation Plan. They contacted me and asked me to update my study. By this point, there had been an additional study on the rate of decline of spotted owl populations in Washington State. This study, done by Eric Forsman, found that the rate of decline was about 6% - with the rate of decline in the Olympic Mountains being about 4%.
On the request of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, on June 18 2003, I sent a followup study to the US Fish and Wildlife Service which was nearly identical to the report I sent them in 1996. I have also posted this study on this website. Essentially, my conclusion was that spotted owls in most parts of Washington State would pass the Extinction Threshold shortly before 2013 and that spotted owls in the Olympic Mountains would pass the extinction threshold in about 2015.
In 2011, Dr. Eric Forsman published a book with the following chart summarizing his research on the decline in the spotted owl population in Washington State:
Source: Dr. Eric Forsman excerpted from the manuscript “POPULATION DEMOGRAPHY OF NORTHERN SPOTTED OWLS” in press at the California University Press. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/olympia/wet/team-research/owl-res/index.shtml © 2011 OPB
Elsewhere in his book, Forsman essentially agreed with my 1996 analysis that there were about 900 spotted owl pairs in Washington State in 1994. The reason the above chart is stable to 1998 is simply because there were no studies during that period. The reason for the huge brackets around the dots is because with so few studies, there is a high degree of statistical uncertainty as to what the spotted owl population really is in Washington State. However, his research was that the population of spotted owls declined in half between 1994 to 2006 – which is almost precisely what I predicted would happen in my 1996 study.
Despite all of the above, the Bush administration attempted to increase logging on Old Growth Forests between 2005 to 2007. There have been numerous lawsuits on all sides in the past few years as private corporations seek to get the last drop of profit out of the timber in these Old Growth forests. Even after Obama was elected in 2008, the lawsuits and the logging have continued.
The conclusion of all of the above is that the spotted owl population is currently on the brink of passing the Extinction Threshold in Washington State. In the Olympic Mountains, unless there are radical changes in the actions of the Washington State DNR and the US Forest Service, spotted owls will pass the Extinction Threshold in the Olympic Mountains sometime between 2015 to 2017.
This completes our history of the fight to save spotted owls. In the next section, we will estimate the current population of spotted owls currently hanging on to existence on the Western slopes of the Olympic Mountains and then describe how the Navy plan to turn this critical habitat into a war zone will adversely impact these owls.