It would be great if ecosystem managers could bring Indians in to help with Traditional Ecological Knowledge to maintain meadows w/ fire. Grazing could be helpful too, because volunteers get worn out doing everything by hand. Long story short: noble firs on Mary’s Peak, relict population from more widespread extent during cold post-glacial times, are invading the meadows on the peak (no more grazing + fire suppression; climate is more conducive now because less snow). So firs are being manually removed and will be hand weeded in future. Otherwise, the biodiversity of the meadows would give way to thick forests. Trees will remain in the historically forested zone. We’ll still have a nice view, native plants will be happy.
Monarchs are probably the best ambassadors for conservation. They are popular, great looking, and they need habitat from their wintering forests in Mexico all the way to Canada. Here on the west coast we have our own population that winters in California. Because the midwestern migration route can be as long as 3000 miles, if farmers can be convinced to use farming practices that help monarchs, it helps a ton of other species, over a huge area. This means no Roundup Ready crops, because that means no weeds on the margins of agricultural fields, and that is where the monarchs are. Even better is organic farming with hedgerows, beetle banks, conservation cover, and windbreaks with some evergreen trees. By advocating for uncultivated margins, Aldo Leopold had the formula in the twentieth century.
Monarchs are dependent on milkweed (Asclepias sp.) because their caterpillars only eat milkweed. Adults lay their eggs on milkweed as they make a multi-generational journey from Mexico each year.
As Monarchs head north, they feed on nectar, stopping at night in protective tree canopies. The first and second generations from Mexico will die before the population gets where it’s going. After newly transformed butterflies emerge from chrysalises they continue on their leg of the migration relay. There may be three or four generations of butterflies by the time the population reaches the farthest point in their travels. In the fall, the last generation will travel all the way back south, looking for sustenance along the way. After overwintering as adults, they will head north again. It’s amazing that this works at all!
If you’d like to have a look at some nice milkweed and possibly an egg, caterpillar or monarch, check out the gardens at Winter’s Hill Winery and Vineyard. (That is some butterfly-friendly wine, and so delicious!!)
I recently found these clumps of milkweed on the side of the road:
If no one sprays it before it goes to seed I will collect seed and grow out plants next year. Having planted a few this year, I can say they are a bit slow to get going but once established they thrive on neglect. A seasonally wet ditch in the sun is best. A wet prairie is ideal. That way the monarchs can find them.
While I was photographing these clumps, a honeybee and a western tiger swallowtail butterfly came by.
If you are an Oregonian (or a resident on planet Earth) this is important.
The day before I took on the Scotch broom (previous post) I indulged in a day of scouting for birds and plants. It is so much easier to see birds since the tree thinning! I finally got a picture of the white breasted nuthatch (there are at least 2) in its element, with a tasty morsel of some kind – nowhere near a feeder!
There is a class of weeds that are legally defined as NOXIOUS. This is a special term applied to weeds that are so aggressive as to be considered economic and ecological dangers. They can completely alter an ecosystem by changing the soil nutrients, pH, or forming a monoculture that excludes other plants. Dandelions may be weeds (a weed control specialist once termed them obnoxious), but they are not designated as noxious because they are not capable of destroying crop value or ecosystems. They and many others are “background weeds” we live with.
The people who decide who gets noxious weeds status are the state and county noxious weed control boards. The Department of Agriculture is the supporting agency for these boards, because noxious weeds were recognized as an economic problem for agriculture. Controlling noxious weeds also protects ecosystem integrity in natural areas. Many weeds that don’t seem that bad to the average person can be very bad when they are unleashed in the countryside.
Scotch broom (or Scots broom) is a noxious weed. Its natural enemies are back in the homeland (Europe) so it can spread at will here. However some insects that eat seeds and vegetative parts of it have been introduced and may help control it.
We are dealing with the legacy of soil disturbance from grazing, logging, and trail blazing followed by Scotch broom invasion. When our restoration work was done, huge patches of it were mowed, and mowed again in subsequent years. But mostly just keeps the plants short. To kill it, one can cut large stems during summer drought, spray when it’s in bloom (highly effective), or pull small ones. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. In an area where the seed has fallen and built up in the soil, it can take many decades to exhaust the seed bank. Pulling can bring seeds up to the surface and result in a whole new crop the following year.
Which brings me to my latest small project: due to weather and other circumstances, a couple of our scotch broom patches had not been mowed for one or two years, and it had grown taller. This actually makes is easier to spray, since when it’s short it is hard to kill because it doesn’t have enough leaf area and doesn’t bloom.
This winter I tried using a dormant spray on the evergreen stems which were more ‘alive’ due to the mild winter we had. It is more difficult to get all stems covered with a dormant spray, but easier to avoid killing the plants you want, as they have all died back. A combination of Triclopyr (Element 4A), and an oil/adjuvant (Mor-Act) seemed to do the trick, although it takes a heap-o-spray to get total coverage. I sprayed again during bloom, which was very effective.
One problem area was the nectar plots where we had planted wildflowers. The broom had invaded them over the years. Suddenly after a couple of years of no mowing, it was blooming. I couldn’t spray it without killing the wildflowers.
I hauled the weed wrench up the hill and brought along my spray bottle of herbicide and loppers. The ground was still soft from recent rain, so I thought perhaps I could minimize disturbing the seed bank by careful use of the weed wrench to pull the broom. It’s a satisfying plant for pulling – the taproot comes easily out of the ground with a ripping sound and not much fuss. But this was a rather slow operation. Actually weed wrenches are often more attractive as an idea than a tool. They are fun and easy to use, but the soil disturbance frequently outweighs their benefit.
I thought perhaps I could test the effectiveness of various methods, and speed things up too, so I switched to cutting with loppers, spraying the ends immediately with a 1:3 mixture of triclopyr (Garlon) and water from a spray bottle with a little surfactant – a variation on the “cut and paint” method. The weather was hot, the broom plants numerous, and so I decided to also add a third treatment – just cutting. I am curious about how late in the season cutting alone will kill broom. Ideally, that’s a method for older large stems that have more trouble resprouting and it is supposed to be done in the hot dry summer to make it doubly difficult. Some of the stems I was cutting were smaller, and we subsequently had several weeks of cold damp rainy weather, so I don’t expect those to disappear. However, at least the wildflowers had some light to grow.
same plot three weeks later – rose checkermallow in bloom. dead broom mulch
On the savanna in the late afternoon, surrounded by lichen-draped oaks; noting the attractive old ones, the new straight ones with potential beyond our lifetimes, mistletoe, galls. Mindfulness comes naturally.
In this video of early spring you can see the effects of not mowing. The reason was fire hazard followed by soggy soil, (drought/deluge) last fall. A lot of thatch from old non-native grasses and taller scotch broom remain; but I hope that will make it easier to kill the broom this spring. Mowing as a substitute for fire is not ideal, although better than nothing.
Other interesting things I found this day out will follow in the next post!
This is unscientific, because their appearance coincided with an improvement in my birding skills, but I noticed three bird species last summer that might be new arrivals: Purple Finch, Western Wood-Pewee, and Lesser Goldfinch, plus the aforementioned White-Breasted Nuthatch this fall and winter.
Hoping that we had some rare and important new species, I cracked open the Land Manager’s Guide To Bird Habitat and Populations in Oak Ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest (note that link goes to part II). Of the six “obligate or near-obligate” species (don’t live anywhere else, or if they do, then much fewer outside this habitat), only two – Acorn Woodpecker and Slender Billed White-breasted Nuthatch have ranges in our part of the Willamette Valley. When we have a resident Acorn Woodpecker, we’ll have all two of them and the champagne corks will pop.
Moving into the more numerous “highly associated” species part of the list, we’ve seen or heard 13 of 20. The authors note that “highly associated species are those that are abundant in some other habitat(s), but reach some of their highest densities in oak habitats.” So not all of these are bell-ringers, so to speak.
The 13 in our neighborhood:
- Bewick’s Wren*
- Black-capped Chickadee*
- Black-headed Grosbeak
- Chipping Sparrow
- House Wren
- Lesser Goldfinch
- Purple Finch
- Spotted Towhee
- Western Bluebird
- Western Scrub-jay
- Western Tanager
- Western Wood-pewee
*For the record, these are pretty common in urban Seattle neighborhoods too
I think the neighbors’ 92 acres to the south are providing a lot of this habitat. We are watching closely for signs of a land sale at that location. It would be a tragedy if it was cleared, following the trend to plant crops on former woodland.
So, back to the ones that cropped up on the radar recently. Lesser Goldfinch prefers tree/shrub and shrub/tree edges and open areas. We saw them foraging on the open savanna area last summer on weeds (weeds!). They like the thistle and sunflower-family (Asteraceae) seed, and they were dancing around over the false dandelions in the savanna.
Purple Finch Listed as a short-distance migrant. Abundance is higher in larger patches (>25 acres). Since ours is 20 acres, the adjacent habitat is probably improving the chances of having them here. Here is a fuzzy photo of one at the feeder last summer.
Western Wood-Pewee. The guide lists this species as a “potential ‘early responder’ to overstory thinning or conifer removal that opens up the canopy of oak or oak-fir forest”. Ah-ha, I’ll take credit for that! I watched one fly to a nest in the fork of a tall skinny oak in the newly thinned woodland. They may have been here previously and we mistook it for some other sort of flycatcher, but they are making the most of the new habitat. They are really easy and fun to watch when they’re feeding because they perch near an opening and fly out and back catching insects. There is an audible ‘snap’ of their beak as they make contact.
Here is someone else’s Youtube video of one in Arizona
I was sorry to learn from The Sibley Guide that “recent population declines in…the Western Wood-Pewee may be due to major losses of wintering habitat in the South American Andes, the result of human activity”. The double liability of habitat loss for long distance migrants in both breeding and overwintering areas is a very complicated issue for conservation.
White-breasted Nuthatches are residents (non-migrating), and they use edges and small habitat patches. So they should be better off if the acreage in woodland restoration continues to increase. If I do nothing else this year, I am going to get a photo of ours that’s in focus.
Lesser Goldfinch. Another resident and edge-user. Good prospects for our population because we’ve got edges galore! Here is someone else’s Youtube video of one at the Tualatin River NWR not far from us – and a really great place to visit.
This is a gallery of landscape changes in our little corner of the world. In a very short time (1994-2012), the local vegetation has been altered by land management quite dramatically. From our perspective (our 20-acre rectangle) it often seems overwhelming.
In 2005 we had a comfortable buffer of forest around us for the birds and wildlife we like to watch. We knew it was tree farm country, so logging was a given but, patchy as it was, it didn’t seem too traumatic. You can see the tree farms mostly blanketing the area in the earliest GoogleEarth map.
Then came a shift in land use – ‘conversion’ is the term – from timber to vineyards. Watch the photos as the trees begin to disappear. Vineyards and orchards sound like a sort of idyllic alteration, but think just a minute about what that entails. Conversion from old growth to tree farms is a step away from diverse, patchy habitat of a particular kind: spotted owls, flying squirrels, really big trees with a lot of carbon stored in their massive trunks, a lot of cavities for owls and other specialists. Old growth trees (250+ yrs) that store and hold – sequester – more carbon than any other type of forest. You can see that even in the earlier views, the connectivity between patches is important – those are corridors that allow wildlife and plants to move across the landscape either to escape the clearcutting or to find food or mates.
Timber farms, especially smaller ones cut in patches on a long rotation, (time between cuts), shelter many important organisms while they grow, and if those plants and animals are lucky, they can shift over to another patch when the clearcut begins. Technically, people are required to leave a certain number of trees and snags, but the rules about that are so lenient that it doesn’t really amount to anything ecologically important in most cases on private land. Federal forests are another story, as they are managed differently. The other thing about forestry is that there are relatively long periods between soil disturbance.
Now, step it up one notch with conversion from timber land to row crops, vineyards, or a hazelnut orchard. If you look, you can see that to the north and east of our 20 acres, all trees were removed, conifer, oak, even the ones that were formerly left by commercial forestry. Stumps were bulldozed, burned, and the land plowed. Two major changes that occur now are the absence of trees and shrubs, and soil disturbance on a regular schedule. Weed control and monoculture demand constant spraying, plowing, or both. All these activities restrict plant life and, importantly, affect the insects that can survive in disturbed habitat.
Unless a farm, orchard, or vineyard is conscientiously managed to leave patches of undisturbed habitat for native ground nesting bees, predatory insects, and other beneficials, the landscape is a depauperate one compared to a natural one.
In the gallery above, you can view the transition from 1) patchy timber harvest to 2) clearcuts on a larger scale (there is a large absentee landowner to the north and east of us who is progressively extracting all the monetary value from his timber, then selling off the land) then 3) conversion to vineyard to the east and north. Note the extremely clean patches and rows of plowed and planted crops. Oak trees that were left after cutting douglas firs were stripped off the land and sold for firewood. Thankfully, a few trees were left around a low spot on the east side, that is the source of a stream that flows across our property and down to Deer Creek. However, our hydrology is permanently altered. Erosion from the force of high water flows, and lower flows in summer are byproducts of vegetation stripped off the soil surface.
Next week – the closeup view of our patch before and after we acquired it.
In my post last week, I had to re-edit to mention that I actually did see a white-breasted nuthatch on our trees and at the feeder. I was probably so excited to report it that I mistakenly edited out that part.
This week, a news item just out reports that the Fender’s Blue butterfly numbers are up at a large reserve near Eugene in the Willamette Valley. Many have rallied around this small, but charismatic species. Unlike the nuthatch and acorn woodpecker, the Fender’s Blue is on the endangered species list. (The birds are slowly sliding toward it in some locales, but their numbers are still up).
A thought or two about insects: perhaps they can recover more quickly than some species (i.e. the spotted owl, mentioned in the article) because their populations have a quicker response time, or because their territories are smaller and more easily managed.
Many things going on there – they don’t have the competition from bigger more aggressive species like the spotted owl does. Insects also tend toward boom and bust cycles because of weather, food, disease and such, although some more than others (think aphids – at the bottom of the food chain and also designed for rapid reproduction). If their numbers drop, or rise, it may depend on environmental conditions other than the management strategies that people are using.
Nevertheless, these strategies are undeniably beneficial. It does one good to start the year with positive news. Maybe we’ll have some Fender’s Blues on our place soon. We have a patch of their larval host plants, some nectar sources, and it would be great if the Conservation District would decide we are worthy of burning the fields! I’m still pestering them about that…
While the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) makes it illegal to negatively impact listed animal species (known as “take”), a permit (called an incidental take permit) can be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allows a limited amount of incidental take if the following conditions are met:
(1) A Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is developed that describes how the impacts to the species will be monitored, minimized and mitigated.
(2) Funding to implement the HCP and procedures to deal with unforeseen circumstances affecting the species, its habitat or the HCP are ensured.
(3) The incidental take identified in the HCP does not appreciably reduce the likelihood of the survival and recovery of the species in the wild (USFWS 1996).
The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973. If a species is “listed” as endangered it is legally protected. Listing is a prolonged and not always successful process, involving study, counting, and documenting extinction danger. Once listed, a further requirement is formulation of a plan for building up populations and habitat for them so that the species can increase to the point where it is no longer endangered.
Landowners who are lucky enough to have property that is home to an endangered species can keep using their land – to grow crops, for example – by signing on to, and following An HCP. If they don’t, then these activities might actually be prohibited entirely, so participating in the HCP protects them from prosecution.
This is sometimes hard to get across to people who are worried about limits to the use of their property – joining allows you to continue an action that might harm an endangered species (you have a permit), as part of a plan that makes up for it in other ways. Not joining could mean less freedom to use your property.
The main reason for an HCP is not to allow take, however, but to establish best management practices to avoid it, and help people take care of their land and the species that belong to all of us.
I participate in a landowner advisory group with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District, which is writing an HCP for Fender’s Blue Butterfly (endangered) and its larval host plant, Kincaid’s Lupine (threatened). I hope that the limited number of landowners in the county who have these species on their property will join us in caring for the habitat that supports them. It is so seldom we can say that our actions make a difference – what a wonderful opportunity!
The post on the shrinking Willamette River system was unhappy. At the end of that post I mentioned that restoring the ecological functions of the river involved working with modern land use and human structures in the landscape. Here is how that might happen. This week in our Master Naturalist class, we visited a farm that is a step in the right direction.
Look at this current view of a section of the Willamette River:
If you zoom in you can see labels for lakes along the right (east) side and over to the left of center. These lakes are hydrologically connected to the main river. Here is the diagrammatic view of the river at the time of European settlement and as sloughs and side channels were drained for agriculture from the mid-1800’s till now :
Aerial views give a different perspective on the adjacent wetlands and their importance to a river. Those lakes in the color map are side channels and oxbow lakes that were part of the river at one time. During high flows and floods, juvenile fish (like the endangered Chinook salmon) will find refuge in side channels; there they grow larger and hide from predators. When the water level recedes, they move downstream, better able to survive the rigors of life in the main channel as they head out to sea. That’s just one of the many functions of channels and sloughs in adjacent wetlands. And one species. Another ecosystem service provided by these wide flat spots is to dissipate the force of stormwater coming down the channel and spread out the volume of water during high flows.
In this farmer’s field there are several native species of fish that hang out in the winter when the water rises (yes-IN the field! remember this was once the river). He has built water control structures to facilitate their movement in and out, so they don’t get trapped in the side channel when it dries out. He has planted trees and hedgerows along the river for habitat. These plants also provide a buffer to absorb fertilizer and insecticides, and protect the river bank and crops.
Here is a closer aerial view of the sloughs (the dark green shrubby areas between fields) and banks planted with trees. You can also see another feature that all farmers should have right in the field – hedgerows of native plants. They look like thin dark stripes in the field in the lower left part of the aerial map.
This view on the ground is dramatically set against the big storm that was on the way this weekend to dump about 2.5 inches of rain on us. The hedgerows are mostly hardhack (Spiraea douglasii) and the one in front is overrun with blackberries. Both provide a lot of value as insect rearing habitat. However, a mix of species provides multiple generations of beneficial insects nectar, food, and places to pupate. That saves on pesticides.
What do you think? If every farmer or landowner with property near a waterway was to enhance one ecosystem service their patch provides, instead of thinking only of protecting crops, houses, or buildings, could we integrate enough habitat and resilience back into the Willamette River system to bring it back to health? Would residents downstream perhaps be willing to provide assistance to upstream residents to help prevent flooding in the streets of Portland?
One last note: buy Flav-R-Pac and Santiam brands – it’s a local farmer’s cooperative that this farm belongs to, and it keeps farmland out of development. If you buy organic – look for the Ladybug logo on produce – this farmer’s neighbor grows organic produce for them. That’s a whole nother story.
1: falling short of natural development or size
2: impoverished depauperate fauna>
Origin of DEPAUPERATE
Middle English depauperat, from Medieval Latin depauperatus, past participle of depauperare to impoverish, from Latin de- + pauperare to impoverish, from pauper poor — more at poor
First Known Use: 15th century
This Dickensian word perfectly describes the flora and fauna of the modern world. We are now living among truly impoverished, pauperized landscapes.
In my Oregon Master Naturalist class this past week, we looked at this illustration of why the Willamette Valley biodiversity has plummeted since the mid-1850s:
On the left is a diagram of the river as it was in 1854. You can see the narrowing, but from a physical point of view, consider the thousands of miles of edges, and surface area that were in the original system. The complexity was mind-boggling, and is the key to understanding the importance of river/wetland systems.
By the end of the century, the side channels and sloughs had been blocked or drained for farmland, the river was straightened for navigation and, significantly, an enormous quantity of large trees were removed from the channel. The result of these activities was a disconnection of the river from surrounding landscapes. The forests no longer contributed nutrients, shading and large woody debris. That impoverished the salmon support system of food and cover, as well as cool water and spawning gravel. Side channels and floodplains no longer dissipate the energy of floods, so Portland streets get inundated during big flood years. It is the equivalent of smashing up a finely tuned, complex and delicate mechanism. A fine clock for example.
The underground hydrology of the river systems is also very complex – with water entering and leaving the visible stream below and along the edges for some distance from the banks. The riparian zone is that belt along a river where you see green vegetation in a dry landscape, or where the tree type changes from conifers to mostly leafy deciduous trees. It can be 1.5 to 3 kilometers wide, yet most laws only protect less than a few hundred feet (sometimes only 50 feet) on either side of a stream.
The loss of wetlands is an enormous cost to us today, and surprisingly the loss from the tiny fraction of original wetlands continues at a rate of about 3% per year, despite laws to protect wetlands. (Previously, the loss was caused by farming, now the primary reason is development.)
Restoring the pauperized landscape: The replacement of lost function is the guiding principle in riparian and wetland ecological improvement projects, rather than “restoration” to an original state. People are just getting the hang of how to replace some elements of river/wetland systems so they perform their original services to wildlife and people, working around human structures to do so.
I have decided to sign up for WordPress Post-a-Week. Although I admire and seek to emulate post-a-day people such as the Dragonfly Woman, whose exemplary blog sets a standard, weekly posting is my own new ambitious goal. However, due to my recent low production there is a current backlog of ideas and photos so I might be barraging you subscribers with several short ones. So, off we go.
Here is the view from Gopher Valley as late summer burns everything to a crisp:
I am embarking on part two of Oregon Master Naturalist training: on-site classes and fieldtrips for the Willamette Valley regional specialization. Last fall I took an online course from OSU, where the Master Naturalist Program resides. This is a wonderful Extension program course and I’m in the first wave of students moving through online and on-site training. When I get done, I will sign up for volunteer hours working with a non-profit or agency, and eventually it will help me be a better tour guide for our restoration project here in Gopher Valley.
This Friday I will spend the day at the Straub Environmental Learning Center in Salem and on a fieldtrip to Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge (our neighborhood refuge) talking about historical vegetation and landscapes in the WV. On Saturday it’s off to Silver Falls State Park for another day of classes and fieldtrips in the park to learn about and observe geology. Two of my favorite subjects.
Here’s a trailer for an interesting movie project that gives a taste of what there is to know about the Willamette River and the valley. They need donations to help finish the movie so if you’re looking for something good to support, now is the moment!
In April, NPR ran a story about shooting one species of owl to save another in Oregon. It just begs for commentary.
Although there aren’t any spotted owls on our place, this is an example – no, possibly THE example of the ethics and dilemma of ecological restoration and questions surrounding repair of damaged ecosystems:
- Are the results of human-caused ecosystem change separable from change that occurs naturally?
- If we are serious about saving species and habitat, how far do we have to go to change our own behavior that caused their decline?
- Are we in a downward spiral – making the situation worse by reacting to the effects of our actions rather than addressing the true causes of extinction?
- Is this whole endangered species recovery exercise going to work for some but not all species? Which species will be able to live with us?
- Will that be enough to preserve the safety net we humans depend on to survive?
Okie doke, so in a nutshell here is the situation:
In the 1970’s, a biologist named Eric Forsman did groundbreaking research on the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). Forsman found that spotted owls depend on old-growth forest habitat. It was determined that they were endangered due to loss of old growth to widespread logging in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1990 the northern spotted owl was placed on the endangered species list. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) mandates protection for species if they are listed, plus a plan to bring them back from the brink. So in 1991 millions of acres of federal forestland were excluded from logging to save habitat for the northern spotted owl. All hell broke loose in the logging communities of the Pacific Northwest, because of their dependence on federal timber land. For an excellent account, see The Final Forest by William Dietrich.
So for the last 30+ years Eric Forsman and a lot of other biologists and managers have been working to bring the spotted owl numbers up by saving habitat. But in fact the numbers are sinking.
As early as 1998 reports about an aggressive cousin – the barred owl (Strix varia) – discussed it as a potentially game-changing threat to the spotted owl (The Owl: Spotted, Listed, Barred or Gone?). Now it has come to pass that yes, the barred owl is currently a big factor in the decline of the northern spotted owl. The biggest factor.
Where did barred owls come from? Apparently barred owls started moving west from the eastern US about the time settlers began plowing up the prairies and suppressing fire. They moved through Canada and Montana, and started expanding their range into the Pacific Northwest in the 1960’s. Was it because of us? Or would this have happened anyway? Impossible to say. The two species might have evolved from a common single species at the time of the last ice age – at least we can be reasonably sure humans didn’t have anything to do with that.
Interestingly, barred owl populations here did not explode until about 20 years ago – about the time the spotted owl was listed. Speculation about why this happened follows this line of reasoning: like many invasive species, at first there aren’t many of them, but gradually they become adapted to their surroundings, or perhaps their population builds to the point where they just produce a ton of offspring. Suddenly the population explodes – because they have few or no predators and parasites, or because they are just better at hogging resources.
In the case of the barred owl, not only are they more aggressive, they are omnivorous and voracious. Whereas the spotted owl is more retiring, and picky about what it will eat – which happens to be old growth-dependent species like flying squirrels and tree voles. Spotted owls are part of a wonderfully complex and delicate food web, involving truffles, arboreal mammals, and big tree cavities. Fat lot of good that did them.
Because barred owls scare off spotted owls (although not always – they also hybridise with them, meaning it is possible spotted owl genes could be lost or “swamped” by barred owl genes), and because they aren’t particular about what they eat, they have no problem supporting themselves at the expense of spotted owls. But when barred owls have been removed or shot, spotted owls show up again. This is where the idea of getting rid of the barred owls came from. But really, this is an idea that can’t get very far. If land managers could get past the outcry over shooting a sort-of native bird, according to Eric Forsman, “You could shoot barred owls until you’re blue in the face, but unless you’re willing to do it forever, it’s just not going to work.”
So were all those years of trying to save habitat wasted?
People who depend on timber for income, and who have suffered disproportionately during the recent economic recession are suggesting that okay, since you can’t save the spotted owl by setting aside habitat, it doesn’t matter. Let us start cutting timber in the reserves set aside during the 1990’s. This is the disadvantage to saving species instead of looking at the really big picture – people can argue that if we can’t save those species, we don’t need their habitats. But this would accelerate the degradation of ecosystems we all depend on.
…far from saying that the logging restrictions were a mistake, owl biologists largely insist that more forests must be spared, especially since heavy logging continues on state and private land.. .”If you start cutting habitat for either bird, you just increase competitive pressure.”
Besides the barred owl, It appears that other changes in the larger landscape have caught up with efforts to conserve spotted owls. A recent review on spotted owl protection lists wildfire as a major threat to spotted owls in drier areas of the Cascades (remember the Biscuit fire?). That is a result of first, more than a century of fire suppression and second, climate change and normal weather patterns leading to conditions conducive to fire in forests loaded with fuel.
In a landscape before habitat became so scarce, if a fire burned one part of the forest, animals and plants could survive in refugia or recolonize from neighboring undamaged habitat. Now that there is so little intact high quality habitat left and it is fragmented, it is a dangerously fragile situation – organisms may not be able to find a place to wait out a wildfire or there may not be an adjoining area that can donate species to it later. With only 10% of high quality intact ecosystems remaining, on average, in the Northwest (e.g. old growth forest, Willamette Valley prairie and savannah, shrub-steppe in eastern Washington) it’s no wonder things are falling apart.
Lots of species are suffering the effects of practices that began during settlement and development of the west. Saving iconic wild salmon runs has been a priority for decades – at least people like to say it is. But how is spending time and resources shooting sea lions and relocating Caspian terns that eat salmon congregating below dams helping the situation? It’s stopgap emergency action, not a solution.
There are currently 11 dams on the Columbia River; “…32 dams in the land mass drained by the Columbia River system (including other rivers), an area roughly the size of France.” Does this not suggest that all the efforts to plant trees in riparian areas, shoot sea lions, and barge fish around dams is really just window dressing? If we want hydropower and irrigation, large scale agriculture and forestry, we will not have wild salmon.
Salmon and owls are two species that are indicators of a healthy ecosystem. We need to recognize that our ecosystems are at risk, and while it is the job of land managers and biologists to manage species, it requires an effort from all of us to look at the whole and make changes that affect how we build our cities, farm our food, allow ourselves to live with other species.
Many species have learned to live with us – coyotes and crows are two that come to mind. The barred owl can be a member of this club too (they live in suburban and even urban areas). We consider them pests or invasive, and think we have nothing to do with how they came to be so numerous. But they are adapting to us, we facilitated it, and it is in fact all about us. Don’t blame the messenger.
The thing is, if we don’t attend to these problems, we may lose the ecosystems that keep us alive. As with past mass extinctions though, the planet will keep on turning. New combinations of species will appear. Maybe humans will be among them.