Northern Spotted Owl Factsheet

Northern Spotted Owl Factsheet

Findings of the Scientific Evaluation of the Northern Spotted Owl:

* Due to an increasingly uncertain fate, threats comparable to those faced at the original time of listing, and clear risks of extinction (particularly in the northern part of the range), protection of all existing suitable owl habitat may prove important to the persistence of the owl.
* Protecting large contiguous blocks of suitable owl habitat in Northwest Forest Plan reserves is necessary for northern spotted owl survival and recovery.
* Northern spotted owls are closely associated with old forests of the Pacific Northwest. Suitable owl habitat is also called “late-successional” or “mature and old-growth” forest.
* Northern spotted owls are a distinct subspecies from California and Mexican spotted owls.
* Northern spotted owls continue to decline at roughly four percent annually across their entire range. In Washington State, owl populations are dropping precipitously and face a high risk of extinction. Only a handful of northern spotted owls remain in British Columbia, Canada.
* Logging in owl habitat remains a major threat to owl survival, particularly ongoing logging on state and private lands, and salvage logging in federal reserves. Natural fires have also degraded some owl habitat in southern Oregon and northern California.
* The recent expansion of the barred owl into the range historically occupied by the spotted owl is potentially a serious barrier to northern spotted owl recovery. Although the exact relationship needs further study, researchers have observed increasing numbers of barred owls, a close cousin to the spotted owl, in spotted owl study areas. Barred owls are slightly larger and more aggressive than spotted owls, and can live in a greater variety of habitats.
* Other major threats to the northern spotted owl include destruction of habitat by uncharacteristic fire in the southern and eastern portions of the owl’s range, and imminent threats from West Nile Virus and Sudden Oak Death Syndrome.

History of Endangered Species Act Protections

* In 1990, after many years of scientific study and legal review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act. The Service determined that the spotted owl “is threatened throughout its range by the loss and adverse modification of suitable habitat as a result of timber harvesting and exacerbated by catastrophic events such as fire.”
* The Service designated critical habitat for the owl on federal lands in Washington, Oregon, and California in 1992. Later that year, the Service also prepared a Draft Recovery Plan for the northern spotted owl. Despite continuing habitat loss and population declines, no final recovery plan was ever completed.
* The Northwest Forest Plan was approved in 1994 and established a system of large reserves where owl habitat was to be protected and restored. The Forest Plan represents the federal contribution to the conservation and recovery of the spotted owl, although roughly one million acres of owl habitat remains open to logging.
* In 2002, the timber industry lobbying group, American Forest Resource Council, filed a lawsuit to force the Service to undertake a review of the owl’s status and to void its critical habitat designation. Another timber industry lawsuit settlement has initiated a process to remove owl reserves on Bureau of Land Management lands in western Oregon.
* The independent status review requested by the industry was completed in August 2004 and determined that the northern spotted owl remains threatened with extinction by the same factors that existed at the time of its listing (i.e. habitat loss from logging), plus additional uncertainty from the barred owl range expansion and diseases, like West Nile Virus, and Sudden Oak Death Syndrome.

Ecology and Conservation

* The northern spotted owl is a medium-sized, nocturnal dark brown raptor that inhabits old forests from northern California to southern British Columbia, Canada. Owls are scarce or absent from areas subject to industrial logging.
* Spotted owls find optimal habitat in old forests with protected interior forest conditions and diverse forest canopies that are high enough for the owls to fly between and underneath. They prefer to nest in cavities within very large trees with broken tops and on platforms on deformed limbs. Only 10 to 15 percent of this old forest habitat remains in the Pacific Northwest, mostly on federal lands. Nearly all suitable owl habitat has been removed from private lands.
* The prey favored by spotted owls is diverse and varies across its range. Wood rats are preferred in the south and flying squirrels in the north, but spotted owls also gain sustenance from mice, insects, small birds, and voles, including red tree and red-back voles, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks.
* Female owls incubate two or three eggs for about a month, and young owls fledge after another month. Both adult owls care for their young. Established pairs normally remain in the same territory for many years.
* Northern spotted owls are very territorial, and intolerant of habitat disturbances. Their range can exceed 3,000 acres and may shift in response to seasonal changes and prey availability.
* There were about 6,000 northern spotted owls in the mid-1990s, but the population has declined by an estimated 4% each year across its range, and by 8% each year in Washington. Spotted owl populations are dropping faster in areas with a higher proportion of state and private land. This rate of decline is compounding annually, and may prevent owl recovery while dramatically increasing the risk of extinction.

For more information:

* The Scientific Evaluation of the Northern Spotted Owl can be found at:
* The draft Demographic Report documenting population status and trends for the northern spotted owl for the period of 1985 to 2003 can be found at:
* The decision to list the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act can be found at:
* The designation of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl can be found at:
* For information on the timber industry and Bush administration’s Five-Point Plan to open up federal old-growth forests for logging, see: