2010 Winter Olympics Prompt B.C. Plan to Recover Spotted Owl
VICTORIA, British Columbia, Canada, May 1, 2006 (ENS) - The British Columbia government will implement a multi-million dollar, five year plan to recover the province's critically endangered northern spotted owl, Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell announced Friday. Environmental groups, whose warnings about spotted owl extinction have fallen on deaf government ears for years, say the plan is just window dressing to make B.C. look good for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Under the plan, the government says it will engage in captive breeding and release of spotted owls, moving owls to new locations, increasing food sources for owls, and managing competing species such as barred owls.
But logging in the old growth forests that provide spotted owl habitat will not stop. The B.C. government, through its Timber Sales Program, will continue as the largest logger of owl habitat, the conservation groups point out.
Bell said the province plans to invest C$3.4 million (US$3.05 million) over the next five years to augment habitat protection with measures to rebuild the populations.
The government said it intends to "evaluate and revise existing spotted owl management areas to ensure they better protect owls. The provincial ministries of environment and forests, the federal government, First Nations and timber companies will be involved, Bell said.
Finally, Bell said the provincial government will "continue detailed, site-by-site analysis in consultation with Environment Canada to provide an appropriate amount of habitat protection in areas where the 2005 [government] survey reported spotted owls."
"B.C. is home to Canada’s northern spotted owl population, and as a recognized leader in environmental sustainability, we are committed to attempting to recover this at-risk species," said Bell. "Ongoing consultations with affected First Nations and forest licensees are also extremely important and will continue."
But environmental groups condemned the government's plan, pointing out that it ends just after the 2010 Olympics. The venues for the 2010 Olympics stretch over a 120 kilometer zone from Richmond, south of Vancouver, to the snowy peaks of Whistler mountain resort, an area that includes owl habitat.
The conservation groups criticized the government plan in a joint statement Friday. They say it allows logging of critical owl habitat and focuses on capturing and breeding owls instead of protecting the old growth forests the owls need to survive.
"Given the B.C. government’s plan ends just after the Olympics, this is a plan to fool the public and the international community, not to save the spotted owl," said Candace Batycki of ForestEthics. "This announcement is a blueprint for extinction not a recovery plan. If the B.C. government was serious about saving the owl it would protect enough habitat to recover the species."
Conservationists are calling for an end to old-growth logging within the Canadian range of the owl bounded by Vancouver, Mission, Chilliwack, Hope, Lytton, Boston Bar, Lillooet, Pemberton, and Whistler, where the Olympics are being held.
"The B.C. government is choosing extinction of the spotted owl over recovery," said Joe Foy, campaign director for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. "Captive breeding without adequate habitat protection means young owls will be released into a landscape that can’t support them – and that is just bad science."
In 2005, B.C. government biologists found only six pairs of owls, an 84 percent decline in less than a decade. Scientists believe that before industrial logging, 500 pairs of spotted owls lived in southwestern British Columbia, the only place in Canada where they are found.
The main threat to the declining spotted owl population is logging of its old growth forest habitat, the environmental groups maintain.
"The B.C. government is abandoning scientific logic," said Dr. Faisal Moola of the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental advocacy group. "By breeding owls in captivity while neglecting to sufficiently protect their habitat, owls will be released into a hostile environment they can't survive in. Our government is choosing spotted owl extinction over recovery."
Environmental groups were prepared to support a recovery plan that included captive breeding only if it was complemented with adequate habitat protection and an endangered species law that protects the spotted owl and the other 1,364 species that are at risk in B.C.
Although British Columbia has the greatest biodiversity of any Canadian province it is one of only two provinces without provincial endangered species legislation. The federal government passed the Species At Risk Act in 2003.
The environmental groups argue that industrial logging of B.C.'s old growth forests is jeopardizing not only owls but other forest dwelling species. For example, a recent paper in the scientific journal, "Biodiversity," found that 17 other species in the range of the spotted owl were at risk of extinction.
The B.C. government says that over the last decade, the province has managed more than 363,000 hectares of spotted owl habitat by fully protecting 159,000 hectares in parks and protected areas and designating the other 204,000 hectares of provincial forest as "spotted owl range" areas.
In these areas, 67 percent of forested habitat suitable for spotted owls, old growth forest, must be retained, harvesting must not take place on more than 50 percent of the land base, and no forest harvesting is permitted within 500 meters of an owl nest site.
Bell, who represents a northern district with an economy based on logging, owned a trucking company and co-owned a logging company before he won a seat in the provincial legislature in 2001.
He blames a competing species of owl, rather than logging, for the decline of Canada's only population of northern spotted owls.
"The recent expansion of more aggressive barred owls from the eastern U.S. is thought to out-compete and displace spotted owls," Bell said. "Government intends to experiment with barred owl relocation and some Midwestern states have expressed interest in receiving barred owls from B.C."
"Captive rearing and release is an option that should be seriously considered to enhance and preserve the population of northern spotted owl in B.C.," said Dr. Ken Macquisten, veterinarian at the Grouse Mountain Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, whose comments are included in the government's announcement of its new owl plan. "Such a program would model itself on the successes of similar captive rearing programs for species such as the burrowing owl, whooping crane, peregrine falcon, Vancouver Island marmot and the black-footed ferret."
Bell maintains that the fate of the owl in British Columbia will not determine global survival of the species. B.C. is the northernmost edge of the spotted owl’s range, accounting for less than half of one per cent of the species’ global population, said Bell, adding that there are approximately 6,100 spotted owls in the western United States.
Bell said SaRCO works with stakeholders, First Nations and all levels of government to provide a "corporate approach" to recovery planning for broad ranging key species and to review and make recommendations on how the province addresses species at risk issues.
But the government's corporate approach is failing to augment the spotted owl population, which continues to decline.
The government's new "action" plan also ignores the recommendations of the government’s own spotted owl recovery team to recover the diminishing owl population to 125 pairs of birds.
In December 2005, B.C. environmental groups filed a lawsuit under Canada's Species at Risk Act, seeking federal government intervention to protect the owl.
Sierra Legal Defence Fund is representing the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, David Suzuki Foundation, ForestEthics and Environmental Defence in the application for judicial review before the Federal Court of Canada.
"We will not sit on the sidelines and watch the B.C. government log the spotted owl"s habitat until this creature disappears from Canada," said Foy in December. "We are demanding Canada’s Minister of the Environment enforce the law to protect animals such as the spotted owl."
Under the three year old Species at Risk Act, if a province does not take adequate action to protect species, the federal government can step in using an emergency provision. The legal action seeks to force the Canadian Environment Minister to use the emergency provisions of the law to protect the spotted owl in British Columbia.
"This is the first test of Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The federal government told Canadians that no endangered species would fall between the cracks. Today we are asking that this promise be kept," said Sierra Legal Defence Fund lawyer Devon Page, who will argue the case in federal court. "If the spotted owl situation is not an emergency, then nothing is."
The move to the federal court comes after the Sierra Legal Defence Fund has exhausted all legal avenues in British Columbia’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. Although the legal cases started with a success - the first injunction in Canada halting logging in endangered species habitat – later court decisions found that B.C.’s laws were inadequate and provided the spotted owl with no protection.
Page says the new provincial government plan to manage owls with captive breeding is a transparent public relations ploy. "This is an obvious move to fool the public and the international community, considering the B.C. government’s plan ends right after the Olympics," said Page. "This is about managing for extinction not saving the spotted owl. If the B.C. government truly intended to save the owl, it would protect enough habitat for recovery of the species."