Canada's Last Wild Spotted Owls to Be Captured

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, May 17, 2007 (ENS) - A secret British Columbia government plan to capture the last 16 wild northern spotted owls remaining in the Canada and put them into a captive breeding program was leaked to an environmental group, which made the plan public today.

The "Northern Spotted Owl Population Enhancement and Recovery in British Columbia Proposed Five-Year Action Plan," was commissioned by the Liberal Government of Premier Gordon campbell. It was written by a scientific team assembled by the government.

The seven member team includes three American government scientists and an American from a nonprofit organization, an official of the Toronto Zoo, a forest scientist from the University of British Columbia, and independent consultant Mike Fenger of Victoria, B.C., who chairs the team.

The Western Canada Wilderness Committee, which received the leaked Five-Year Action Plan, written in March, says the provincial government wants to get rid of the endangered owls so it can log their last remaining habitat in southwestern British Columbia.

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Northern spotted owls depend upon old growth forests for their habitat. The large, old trees are also the most prized by timber companies. (Photo by Jared Hobbs courtesy SOPET)
"Putting wild owls in zoos while continuing to log their habitat borders on the criminally insane," said Joe Foy, campaign director with the Wilderness Committee.

"Itís a cynical attempt to curry public favor while doing nothing to recover the species," Foy said. "Where will you release the young owls Ė into a sea of clearcuts?"

Leak of the plan comes as the Wilderness Committee confirmed active and planned logging in several areas that are key owl habitat, including Lillooet Lake, Fire Mountain in the Lillooet River Valley and Blackwater Creek near Birkenhead Provincial Park

Provincial government scientists have identified the loss and fragmentation of habitat due to logging as the primary threat to the owl.

The logging is approved under a British Columbia government management plan for owls that prioritizes logging over spotted owl protection. The B.C. government is the largest logger of owl habitat through its timber sales program.

In April 2006, the B.C. government announced the creation of the team of experts to advise on captive breeding and protecting recovery habitat.

Later, the provincial government changed the teamís terms of reference to disregard habitat. The Five-Year Action Plan confirms that the threats of habitat fragmentation and habitat loss are "beyond the scope" of the team's terms of reference and are "therefore not addressed."

In December 2006, the government established the Spotted Owl Population Enhancement Team, SOPET, an independent science team charged with providing advice regarding the variety of approaches that could potentially contribute to recovery of Canada's most endangered bird.

SOPET says its recommendation to removed owls from the wild, breed them in captivity and release them back into the wild is based on "professional judgment, personal experience and an understanding of the scientific literature on population augmentation actions and how these actions might translate to Spotted Owl population performance in British Columbia."

However, SOPET says, population enhancement actions have never been comprehensively applied to spotted owls, so while its recommendations are based on "our collective expert judgment" they are "characterized by an unknown amount of risk and uncertainty."

"Ultimately," SOPET emphasized, "the success of any population enhancement program will depend on adequately addressing the threats that originally placed the species at risk Ė the loss and fragmentation of habitat in the case of Spotted Owls in British Columbia."

Although the issues of habitat loss and fragmentation were placed outside the team's terms of reference, SOPET says the habitat issues are critical to recovery of the species.

"We recommend that the British Columbia government, if deciding to implement captive breeding, make explicit the commitment to protect habitat in the areas where captive bred owls settle, regardless of whether those areas are in previously designated owl management areas," SOPET wrote.

"We do not recommend implementing the captive breeding and reintroduction approach without such a commitment, as one without the other is not likely to succeed," the team said.

SOPET recommends that removal of the owls should begin this year. The team suggests a budget in Year 1 of C$527,000 and an estimated five year budget of C$3,42 million.

The government plan coincides with a court case brought by Sierra Legal, on behalf of ForestEthics, the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, and the Wilderness Committee, that aims to force the Canadian government to protect spotted owl habitat using the federal Species at Risk Act.

Documents obtained in the court case reveal that Ottawa contemplated intervening in April 2006 in the face of continued logging by British Columbia but did not after the BC government promised that steps would be taken to recover the owl population and protect their habitat.

"The capture of all spotted owls would mark the extinction of this species from the wild in Canada and amount to an admission by the government of its absolute failure to protect the birdsí old forest refuge," said Sierra Legal lawyer Devon Page.

Members of SOPET are:

To read the "Northern Spotted Owl Population Enhancement and Recovery in British Columbia Proposed Five-Year Action Plan," click here.