Home->Winter 2005/2006

Hoopa Forest Management and the Northern Spotted Owls: Have We Learned?

Spotted Owl
Color band is visible on the leg
of this
female spotted owl. The
color bands are used to
identifiy birds from year to
year without having to
re-capture them to read the
number on the metal band.

So this is exciting, we’ve been crouched in the huckleberry for nearly an hour surrounded by a billion mosquitoes and finally the owl has taken a mouse. “What now”? Dawn asks. “We watch what he does with the mouse”, I reply. “It looks like he’s going to eat it.” “Yep.” Then we offer him another one.

Training new hires in the art and science of surveying and monitoring northern spotted owls has been a large part of my job for the last 14 springs. It’s not as much fun as it sounds. Arriving for work at 3:30 am, driving on logging roads that have not seen a timber sale for seven years and then crawling through the huckleberry in pursuit of flying cats or so they appear at times as they silently swoop down and pluck mice from a branch and sail down the hill effortlessly.

“Ok, lets run,” I say to Dawn and we begin our pursuit. We’ll stay on this ridge and hope he goes to one of the historic nest trees, which can be accessed from the ridge.” “But we’re running through poison oak.” “Sorry, but its better than slithering through the huckleberry.” I swear they’re going to find my skeleton tangled in the huckleberry some day when I go in too deep and can’t fight my way out or when my backpack gets tangled and I can’t free myself. “There it is,” I exclaim and Dawn looks at me as if I am hallucinating. “I don’t see anything,” she says. “No, listen, I can hear him giving delivery hoots 200 meters down the hill.” “Oh, so what does that mean?” “Well, we just have to catch up with him before he goes to the nest or the female comes off to accept the mouse.” Thirty minutes later we are nearly half way there and the male has been watching us flounder through the brush for the last 25 minutes. “Ok, I will go ahead to where I think I can see the area where he had been hooting and then you will give him another mouse.” “Got it boss.” And so it goes, and we discover yet another nest tree in the 375 acre stand of old growth, which makes up the core of territory 74031.

The northern spotted owl was listed Federally as a Threatened species in 1990 and the marbled murrelet in 1992. The tribe hired a wildlife biologist in 1991 to conduct surveys for the listed owl and murrelet and to write the necessary Biological Assessments for Timber Sales. At the same time the planning process for the tribe’s FMP was begun. Because the tribe and BIA had consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) on several timber sales and received conservation recommendations in the resulting Biological Opinions, it was felt that the FMP planning team had enough input from the Service to proceed with the FMP without the direct involvement of the Service. Service representatives had offered to participate in the process early on but it was thought that the plan would have greater Tribal ownership by proceeding with out any additional outside input. In addition, the less emphasis upon managing for “owls” during the planning process, the better, since owls traditionally were not a group of species for which tribal members would seek out due to their role as messengers of “bad news.” Beyond that, the idea for focusing management on only one or two species at a time is contrary to Native Americans philosophy. Generally, Native American cultures view the world in a far more holistic way with all species of plants and animals viewed as important to the health of the web of life.

Of the alternatives proposed, the higher intensity alternatives did not include all of the Service’s recommendations. Although the tribe’s selected alternative resulted in incidental take of individual spotted owl pairs and un-occupied potential marbled murrelet habitat, it did meet the Service’s primary objective of providing connectivity for owls passing through the Reservation. In fact, the Reservation has supported between 30 and 40 pairs of owls each year from 1992 to 2004 despite the timber harvesting and incidental take. In 1997 the tribe, BIA and USFWS completed a programmatic Section 7 Consultation on the tribe’s FMP which requires annual monitoring reports documenting the amount of habitat degraded or removed during the previous year’s harvest and the biological status of the owls. This programmatic consultation was the first completed on tribal lands nationwide and has been a tremendous benefit to the tribe, Service and ultimately the owl. By removing the requirement for annual consultation prior to timber sales, the tribe saves valuable time and can advertise and sell timber sales at the most appropriate time. The service receives the same impact assessment data and can track the impacts in their database but they do not have to produce project by project Biological Opinions. The benefit to the owl comes through the intensive monitoring of the population and its demographics, which can then be used to model the effects of various habitat conditions and climatic factors on survival and reproduction. The information gained from these modeling efforts could be used to maintain or improve favorable habitat conditions across the landscape in the future.

Young Owl
Tribal member Dawn McCovey is
holding a juvenile northern spotted
owl during the banding process.
The tribe began an intensive spotted owl survey and monitoring program in 1992, which conformed to the standards and protocols of the long-term demographic density study areas throughout the owl’s range. The data the tribe has collected has now been included in two range-wide status and trend demography “meta” analysis. Fourteen study areas were included in the most recently completed analysis, which was conducted in January of 2004 and covered the period of 1985-2003 (Anthony et al. 2004). Of the fourteen study areas included in the analysis, Hoopa was one of only four which appeared to have a stable population during the study. In addition, Hoopa was one of two study areas showing an increase in reproduction. Although these results are favorable it should not be over stated at this point for the following reasons: 1) The overall average reproductive rate at Hoopa was the lowest of the 14 study areas and 2) the populations “stability” was tenuous and could easily slip into the category of declining in the next analysis. On the other hand, the population is doing better than predicted in the Environmental Assessment on the FMP which concluded that the owl population would likely decline during the next 10–20 years and then begin to recover and eventually stabilize as habitat cut during the BIA era recovered as owl habitat. The near term decline was predicted because the tribe continues to cut old growth habitat since there are no second growth stands ready for harvest. This continued loss of owl habitat was expected to result in a decline of the owl population in the near term and the Service issued incidental take for a number of owl pairs during the period of the FMP. Most of these pairs have continued to persist and reproduce. The discussion section of the above mentioned meta analysis stated:

“The relative stability of spotted owl populations on HUP (Hoopa) was particularly interesting, because old forests were harvested on that area during our study. However, the forest management plan for the Hoopa Reservation did not allow intensive clearcut logging, and 30% of the forested lands were retained as old-forest reserves in riparian protection zones, tribal reserves, and spotted owl core nesting areas”.

It is also important to point out that northern spotted owl populations use habitat differently throughout their range most likely in response to their primary prey changing from northern flying squirrels in the north to Dusky footed woodrats in the south. In Hoopa, the primary owl prey is the dusky footed woodrat which is most abundant in young brushy regenerating stands while northern flying squirrels are never abundant and when present generally occupy mature and old growth forests. Therefore, managing for spotted owls in Hoopa requires less old growth forest than necessary in Washington and northern Oregon. In fact, retention of patches of good nesting habitat mixed with younger stands suitable for woodrats might be desirable for spotted owls in northern California. This is being accomplished in Hoopa and will likely ensure success for the spotted owl on tribal lands into the future unless increasing barred owls, or the arrival of exotic disease (west Nile virus) or both impact the spotted owls significantly.

Well did you see the female? Dawn asks. “Yes, she is the original female banded here in 1992 and originally banded as a juvenile on the Willow Creek (NWC) study area in 1989.” “So she is 15 years old?” “Yep. She has spent all of her adult years in this territory and has had two mates and produced only four young in all that time.”

The territory mentioned above has a very high percentage of old growth habitat within a 1.3 mile buffer around the activity center, this territory has not been very productive. I think that it is lacking a grocery store. By that I mean that there are no brushy pole stands close to the activity center. We have some territories with very little old growth but they have been very productive, most likely because they have good sources of woodrats nearby. We have been working hard to document habitat and climatic relationships with survival and reproduction and nearly have a draft paper ready for submission to an appropriate journal. Owls in Hoopa and on the private industrial forest lands to the west of Hoopa appear to do well if they have a mix of good nesting, roosting and foraging habitat in close proximity to good woodrat habitat. This has made managing for spotted owls relatively easy up to this point compared to maintaining many other old growth associated species. For example, there are many species of bryophytes and lichens which require interior mature forest stand conditions and species such as pileated woodpeckers need a great deal of large forest structure, especially large snags for foraging and nesting.

Fisher Kits
Fisher kits removed for tagging are
held for only a few minutes and then
returned to the den. Each one has
unique markings on their chest and
groin. Therefore, photos are taken
so that they might aid in identification
if tags are lost or fail.
In addition to the spotted owl and marbled murrelet survey projects, the Hoopa wildlife program conducted a Pacific fisher habitat use and population study between 1996 and 1999. The tribe is currently expanding the fisher research with a grant received through the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tribal Wildlife Grants program. The fisher is a culturally significant species to the Hoopa Tribe and has also been petitioned to be listed as threatened three times in the past ten years and has recently been classified as a Candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The data collected during the previous fisher research project has demonstrated the importance for the retention of large diameter trees for fishers, especially large diameter hardwood trees for den and rest sites.  In addition, the density of fisher on the reservation study site appeared to be higher in the areas which had the highest level of old growth habitat remaining. Overall density of fisher on the study site appeared to be very high when compared to other study areas in the west with nearly one fisher per square mile. The new research project begun in October 2004 will document female fisher den selection, assess the feasibility at studying fisher dispersal and the use of genetic analysis to monitor fisher populations.

The management alternative selected by the tribe for their FMP was identified as a “Moderate Income and Moderate Wildlife” alternative. The guiding principles to be used in silvicultural prescriptions were and are to retain old growth structural characteristics similar to that which would have occurred due to natural disturbances such as fire which rarely removes all of the standing trees. Fire has been an important factor in the development of nearly all of the old growth stands on the reservation. When examining large areas of old growth still existing on or near the reservation it can be seen that fire was generally of low intensity near streams and varying from low to occasionally high intensity on upper slopes. With this in mind all timber sale units retain significant large structure following logging, looking nothing like the intensive clear cuts of the 70s and 80s but being very similar to the older cuts of the late 50s and 60s although much smaller in scale. These older cuts retained varying levels of large green trees and high levels of large down wood as timber harvests avoided cull and low value trees. These stands are now becoming important habitat for spotted owls, pileated woodpecker, fisher and other old-forest associates. In fact, three of seven radio collared fishers used these older cuts as their denning sites during March to May 2005. These animals all selected large diameter hardwood trees for their natal den sites.

The stakeholders on Indian lands often live on the same lands managed for commercial resource extraction and their ancestors have occupied these lands for thousands of years. Unlike private lands, culture, tradition, subsistence as well as recreational use of these lands takes precedence over pure economic gain. But unlike federal lands in the Pacific Northwest which have fallen into a bureaucratic quagmire; implementation of forest management plans must occur due to the strong economic need. Because of this there exists an opportunity for tribes to regain their rightful position as the leaders in the field of sound ecological management of the land. I believe that if tribes were afforded sufficient funding for ecological monitoring programs the effectiveness of tribal management would be documented and it would eventually influence management on federal lands. Hoopa is finishing up a fuels management plan which will include mechanical fuel reductions and the reintroduction of fire into the landscape. We will be able to document the effects of this on spotted owls but without additional long term funding, monitoring the effects on other species will be very limited. Hoopa forest management is striving to maintain and restore important ecological elements across the Reservation lands, not for any one species of wildlife, but for all species and the benefit of future generations. The close tie of the people, culture and traditions to the land will ensure that they will be successful.

Mark Higley
Wildlife Biologist, Hoopa Valley Tribal Council, Forestry Division

"We must always consider the environment and people together, as though they are one, because the
human need to use natural resources is fundamental to our continued presence on earth."
34 Paul Bunyan Lane in Libby, Montana 59923 • Tel: (406) 837-0966 • Email: