The Last Owls
As the last ancient forests of British Columbia disappear, species like the northern spotted owl are going extinct. With only one breeding pair left in the Canadian wild, activists say the choice is between profit and preservation.
At kilometre 12 on the logging road, Joe Foy steps out of his pickup truck and gazes across the Spuzzum Valley canyon in southwest BC. “See that corner over there,” he says, pointing to a forested slope where the canyon widens like an hourglass. “That’s where the last two owls are.”
In the distance, framed by a periwinkle blue sky, the peaks of the Coast Mountains are splashed with snow. The forest glitters emerald and jade in the April sun. Somewhere in the canopy below, nesting in a centuries-old cedar tree or Douglas fir, is the only breeding pair of northern spotted owls left in Canada. At this very moment, the female owl might be sitting on eggs or shredding a bushy-tailed woodrat to feed a hungry chick or two.
The old-growth forest along the lower slopes, where the owls are nesting, is darker and less uniform than the lighter second-growth that carpets the valley bottom. “The valley’s been logged to rat shit,” says Foy, who has a boyish appearance despite his greying hair. “But there’s something about this place that has resulted in the last pair of spotted owls being here. That’s not something any human decided. That’s something they decided.”
It’s not the first time that Foy, who works for the non-profit group Wilderness Committee, has been on a scouting mission to the Spuzzum Valley. The previous year, he had parked his truck out of sight on a narrow road spinning off from the main logging road in paperclip folds. After heating canned stew for dinner on a Coleman stove, Foy tucked into his sleeping bag in the back of his truck. When he heard the earth rumbling the next morning, he launched a drone, taking photos and video of logs being stacked and loaded onto a truck after clear-cutting in spotted owl habitat.
But on this late-winter morning 11 months later, Foy has company. Spuzzum First Nation Chief James Hobart cuts a solid figure as he stands next to Foy near the edge of a vertiginous slope, his black boots squishing in the mud. When Hobart swivels to his right, away from the owls, he can see the mountainside across the valley is brown and bare. A fresh logging road belts the belly of the treeless slope, then wraps through untouched old-growth forest and ends abruptly in a small clearing, like the dot on a question mark. If the logging continues, it will soon encroach on the boundary of the provincial wildlife habitat area where the owls nest and destroy habitat for the prey they hunt.
“All we can do is hope that we’ve stopped it in time,” says Hobart, who has warm eyes and calloused hands that tell of a life of outdoor labour. He likens the spotted owl pair to the animals on Noah’s ark, rescued from the great flood. “It’s like the last two of our children in that family.”
For thousands of years, spotted owls have lived in the old-growth forests and remote canyons of southwestern BC. The owls have dark chocolate feathers sprinkled with their namesake white flecks, a heart-shaped facial disc, and a hooked, straw- coloured beak that looks rather like a little nose. They nest in stovepipes quilted with fir needles, in the tops of old trees whose crown has been knocked off by wind, or in cavities where a broken branch invites decay to chisel out a cubbyhole. Flying squirrels and bushy-tailed woodrats—other nocturnal denizens of old-growth—are their favoured prey, although they’ll also dispatch a smorgasbord of smaller fare, including voles, frogs, and snails.
No owl in North America has been studied as thoroughly, and no owl has generated a fraction of the controversy. In the 1990s, as debate raged about logging in the spotted owl’s old-growth habitat in the Pacific Northwest, American mill towns famously sold T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan, “Save a logger, eat an owl.” Guided by a robust Endangered Species Act, the U.S. protected vast tracts of old-growth forest for the owl. But BC, the only place in Canada where the owl has ever lived, took a different path. In the absence of provincial endangered species legislation, successive BC governments prioritized industrial logging over old-growth protection, with predictable results.
“Spotted owls evolved in undisturbed old-growth forest conditions that existed prior to the advent of commercial forestry,” explains wildlife biologist Jared Hobbs.
“They evolved to be the top avian nocturnal predator in that ecosystem and were once very common. With current commercial forest management practices we changed that ecosystem significantly; the rapacious logging of old-growth forests has caused the owl’s decline.”
“Spotted owls evolved in undisturbed old-growth forest conditions that existed prior to the advent of commercial forestry,” explains wildlife biologist Jared Hobbs. “They evolved to be the top avian nocturnal predator in that ecosystem and were once very common. With current commercial forest management practices we changed that ecosystem significantly; the rapacious logging of old-growth forests has caused the owl’s decline.”
Biologists estimate there were once 1,000 adult spotted owls in southwestern BC, not including chicks and juveniles. In the 1990s, when Foy and Wilderness Committee took up the cause, 100 owls remained in the province’s wild. By 2021, there were only three. Along with the breeding pair in the Spuzzum Valley, a single male lives in the Utzlius Valley, about 20 km distant.
“We should care about those three owls the same way as if a little red bump showed up on your arm and you didn’t know what the hell it was,” Foy says.
“You could ignore it. But it might be the end of you. When you start losing species in the forest, don’t ignore that. Get on that. Because it means your landscape is sick.”
We climb back into our vehicles and surf the potholes, passing a yellow excavator parked in a clearing. The chief’s SUV veers sharply left to cross a wooden logging bridge over Spuzzum Creek. The logging road climbs steeply, bisecting slopes littered with fallen trees. When our passage is blocked by a two-storey cable yarder with steel guy lines—equipment used to lift logs from slopes—we park the vehicles and walk. The chief, who has a bad knee and is using a tall, whittled stick for a staff, picks his way silently.
Western red cedar and Douglas fir trees, more than two centuries old, lie in piles, their branches strewn about the slopes. Around the cable yarder are gas jugs and blue rags used to wipe the grease from someone’s fingers. Sandwich wrappers poke up from the snow, not far from empty juice bottles, pulleys, cables, and a rusting shovel. “They’re showing a lack of understanding for how we value the land,” Hobart says. “How we value it is totally different. It’s in contrast to them. It’s not about the money all the time.”
Old-growth forests are as much part of BC’s image as snowy Rocky Mountains, sapphire lakes, and a beach-studded coastline. Yet the term “old-growth” has different meanings in different parts of the province. In the north, where the growing season is shorter, trees at least 140 years old are classified as old-growth.
In the mossy, mist-shrouded temperate rainforests that mantle BC’s coast—temperate rainforests are also found in scattered patches in the province’s interior—old-growth refers to trees at least 250 years old. Many skyscraper Douglas fir and cedar trees, found in coastal valleys drenched with rain, are considerably older. In some well-known places like Avatar Grove, near Port Renfrew on southwest Vancouver Island, you can walk among trees that were saplings more than 1,000 years ago, when the Song dynasty ruled in China, Mayan civilization flourished in the jungles of Mexico, and Europe was in the throes of the Middle Ages.
For Ken Wu, co-founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance, a non-profit organization working to protect BC’s endangered old-growth forests, there’s nothing quite so magical as spending time in the company of ancient trees.
“The giant trees on the West Coast are about the largest and oldest organisms that have ever existed in earth’s history, and they imbue a sense of humility that we’re part of something much larger and greater than ourselves.”
Wu also founded the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, advocating for the science- based protection of all native ecosystems.
Over the decades, most of BC’s old-growth forests have been logged. A trio of independent scientists recently found that less than three per cent of BC’s most productive old-growth forests—the ones with the biggest trees that harbour the most at-risk species—are still standing.
As conflict about the future of unprotected old-growth simmered around the province, the BC government struck an old-growth review panel, led by foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel. Following months of public input, the foresters issued a report calling for a paradigm shift in the way BC manages old forests. The province should reject the old idea that these forests are renewable, they argued, and start acknowledging their irreplaceability: we may never again see the climatic conditions that created giant trees and, even if we did, it would take half a millennium or more to replace them. In Gorley and Merkel’s new paradigm, forests would be managed for ecosystem health, not for timber values.
Yet the BC government, despite an election campaign promise to implement 14 recommendations made by Merkel and Gorley—including an immediate moratorium on old-growth logging in areas at the highest risk of biodiversity loss—has been slow to respond. In most parts of the province, it’s still business as usual when it comes to industrial logging, frustrating old-growth advocates and igniting protests.
Near Port Renfrew, more than 1,101 people have been arrested since May 2021 in the Fairy Creek protests—named after the last relatively intact, unprotected old-growth watershed on southern Vancouver Island. The watershed, although slated for a relatively small amount of logging, has become a symbol for the continuing destruction of old-growth around the province, including in adjacent valleys; protests and arrests continue, despite a two-year moratorium on Fairy Creek logging announced by the government in June. To obstruct logging and new road building, protestors have been locking themselves to devices buried along existing logging roads or atop tall, makeshift structures.
Wu is encouraged that the province has created an advisory panel to identify old-growth stands with the greatest biodiversity. “This will help to aim the deferrals and eventual protected areas into the right areas, with the big trees,” he says. He’s also hoping the federal government will pitch in to help Indigenous-led old-growth protection efforts in the province, and that the province will agree to match federal and international targets to protect biodiversity.
“But these are still words, promises, and processes,” Wu points out. “On the ground, on a provincial scale, very little has actually changed in terms of old-growth logging. So the protests and mobilizations must continue.”
Alarmed by how little ancient forest remained in its territory, in 2020 Spuzzum First Nation decided it would not allow any more old-growth trees to be logged. Too many ancestral cedar trees, called kwátłp, had already been lost. They are intricately related to Spô’zêm identity and traditions. Traditional medicines grow at the base of the ancient cedars, Hobart explains, a gift since time immemorial. It’s no coincidence, he believes, that the old-growth cedars are also key to the spotted owl’s future on the landscape.
In Spô’zêm tradition, owls are regarded as messengers between our world and the spirit world. When people see an owl, they believe an ancestor is speaking to them. “There’s a level of excitement and there’s also a level of fear when an owl comes by,” Hobart tells me. “If you’re actually respecting your ancestors and treating them in a good way, it could be a compliment; they’re basically patting you on the back. But at the same time, they could be there telling you to smarten up and take note of what’s happening.”
When Hobart saw Foy’s drone footage of the Spuzzum logging, he swung into action. Only one of three logging cut blocks in the Spuzzum Valley—auctioned off by the provincial government agency BC Timber Sales—had been logged. BC Timber Sales had cut roads into the other two blocks, but the trees were still standing. The urgency heightened when Wilderness Committee discovered five additional Spuzzum Valley cut blocks would be put up for auction in 2021.
Foy also received a surprising tip. The spotted owl pair had hatched two chicks in 2020 and one in 2019, an uplifting piece of information he immediately shared with Hobart, along with the less-welcome news that the juveniles had been captured by provincial government biologists and taken to an experimental spotted owl breeding centre. “I was angry at first,” Hobart says, “but I realized that if there was any chance for these owls, they had to grow to a certain size safely . . . New chicks would have to create a new habitat—and they’d taken away that habitat.”
In October 2020, acting on behalf of Spuzzum First Nation and the Wilderness Committee, the environmental law charity Ecojustice asked the federal government to issue an emergency order under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. An order would have allowed Ottawa to protect the spotted owl’s old-growth habitat by taking over responsibilities that normally fall within provincial jurisdiction, such as whether or not to grant logging permits.
At the eleventh hour, the BC government and Spuzzum First Nation reached an agreement to defer logging for one year while more fulsome talks take place. “Unless we’re satisfied, nothing is going forward,” Hobart says.
“They are about protecting the spotted owl and the management of it— and we’re about protecting the valley and taking ownership back of our core territory.”
A managed future
For the BC government, protecting the spotted owl means investing about $2 million so far in the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Centre, on the bucolic grounds of a former pint-sized zoo in Langley, about one hour’s drive from Vancouver. The centre opened in 2007, with a founding population of six spotted owls caught in the wild. Since then, the BC government has repeatedly announced plans to release captive-bred juvenile spotted owls into 363,000 hectares that are either protected or are “managed” for spotted owl recovery.
But about half of that habitat is not currently suitable for the spotted owl, according to Jared Hobbs, who also points out the BC government allows timber harvesting in 75 per cent of the 51,000 hectares it calls “managed future habitat areas” for the owl, even though it could take hundreds of years for suitable habitat to regrow.
“In BC it’s still completely legal to log a spotted owl nest as long as the owl is not in the nest,” says Hobbs, who was a scientific adviser for BC’s spotted owl recovery team from 2002 to 2006 before he left, saying the recovery plan for the owl was not sufficiently grounded in science and was unlikely to succeed.
At the world’s only breeding centre for northern spotted owls, things haven’t gone quite according to plan. “It’s been a huge, steep learning curve,” says biologist and breeding centre coordinator Jasmine McCulligh. At first, biologists took a hands-off approach to egg laying and hatching, believing the owls knew best. But three years into the captive breeding program, eggs were found broken in the nests. Other eggs vanished, and it turned out the females had eaten them. Following consultation with captive breeding programs at zoos, the centre decided artificial incubation was the only option. Staff at the centre now take eggs from the nests, hatching them in incubators while a playlist of spotted owl calls and forest birdsong rolls in the background.
“The chicks are born looking very sad and pathetic,” McCulligh says. “They’re not cute at all.” The hatchlings can’t stand up, their eyes are closed, and they wobble and roll around on a paper towel in a plastic tray. Breeding centre staff wipe their bums and turn them over if they get stuck on their backs, like a turtle trapped on its shell.
In its first 10 years of operation, the centre hatched just eight chicks—and one owl is blind, can’t fly, and lays eggs in her water dish. The past four years have seen increased success, with two to four chicks hatching annually. In March 2021, there were 29 spotted owls at the centre, including a handful of owls imported from the U.S. to enhance the breeding pool and maintain genetic diversity.
Yet not one owl has been released into the wild. In part, that’s because another wrinkle in the prospects for northern spotted owl recovery has emerged. Bigger, more aggressive barred owls have migrated west of their historic range and are competing for habitat with the spotted owl. Hobbs says a pair of spotted owls can defend their territory, but it’s much harder for a solitary owl. For now, the BC government is relocating barred owls from spotted owl territory or shooting them.
Hobart is hopeful there will soon be more spotted owls in the wild. He’s been promised that three captive-bred owls will be released in 2022—another breeding pair for the Spuzzum Valley and a female for the male in the Utzlius Valley.
Upon their release, the nation plans to hold a small nighttime ceremony in the woods, with a feast and traditional foods like dried sockeye salmon. Some food will be eaten and, in keeping with tradition, some will be placed in a ceremonial fire. The fire food will be for the ancestors, the cedar trees, and the owls, to champion their spirits back to the spot and to honour the birds that didn’t make it.
“Maybe those that are out there will know we’ve recognized the wrongs that have happened to them,” Hobart says. “It’s in the hope that they understand that we’re here and we’re not going to leave them again.” ■
Sarah Cox is an award-winning journalist and author based in Victoria, BC.
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