There are only three known northern spotted owls left in the wild in Canada, including just one breeding pair. Their chicks have on occasion been taken for a captive breeding program, to try and boost the species’ prospects.
Now Canada and British Columbia have announced a more full-throated response to the potential extinction of the owl within the country’s borders. In tandem with the breeding scheme, the province will enforce a one-year halt to logging in the few remaining old-growth forests that the owl favors, until more permanent protections can be instituted.
The local Spo’zem First Nation, in southern British Columbia, was part of the announcement, calling it a “monumental step”.
The Spo’zem chief, James Hobart, explained that northern spotted owls, also called skelule?, are considered messengers, and their health is indicative of the health of the rest of the environment.
“Our messengers are extremely powerful beings,” Hobart said in a statement.
“For years the province systematically swathed throughout our nation extracting major old growth forests while desecrating any chances of livelihood for the spotted owl.”
The northern spotted owl’s territory stretches from old growth forests in southern British Columbia, through Washington, Oregon and into northern California. In the US, northern spotted owls are also listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
In British Columbia, conservation groups estimate there were once up to 500 breeding pairs of the bird in the wild, but they say since the introduction of industrial logging and increased competition for habitat, those numbers have plummeted.
A statement from British Columbia’s ministry of environment added that the new agreement will build on existing plans to protect the spotted owl, and is part of a wider commitment to protect 25% of Canada’s lands and waters by 2025.
In 2007, British Columbia established an outdoor breeding centre for northern spotted owls in a facility outside Vancouver, where there are currently 29 captive northern spotted owls living in outdoor aviaries.
The Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program is the only centre of its kind in North America. Jasmine McCulligh, the facility coordinator, said it is currently working to get to 10 captive breeding pairs of northern spotted owls before any offspring can be released.
There are currently nine breeding-suitable female owls in the facility, but she said reaching their goal has been a challenge since the owls can be unpredictable. However, once they mate, they typically mate for life.
This year, the centre announced eggs began arriving on 26 March – one to three eggs typically arrive in a clutch, about three days apart, McCulligh explained. Once the eggs arrive, they typically take about 32 days to actually hatch.
“The numbers vary quite a bit,” she said. “Last year we had two chicks born, the year before that we had four. Fertility is something we’ve struggled with.”
The centre also recently took in a rescued male northern spotted owl that was found injured on the side of a road in California. McCulligh said as the center grows to meet its goals, capacity has become a concern, and expansion will likely be necessary in the future.
One of the key next steps of the new agreement will include a strategy to start releasing these owls into the wild, according to the provincial environment ministry, with an eventual target of 125 wild breeding pairs.