Recent logging activity in the Chehalis area is seen as a setback for one of the rarest birds in British Columbia.
In 40 years, a swath of forest north of Harrison Mills could have qualified as old growth, which would have been viable habitat for the spotted owl. The forest that had been growing since around World War II was approved for logging this year, and it’s being harvested.
There is one wild spotted owl in the province; a breeding pair was released this year and the remainder are in captivity. A captive breeding program for the owl was established in 2007.
Joe Foy works with the Wilderness Committee, leading a number of campaigns, including advocating for the spotted owl. He said that while the harvesting of the Chehalis area trees isn’t necessarily fatal for spotted owl conservation efforts, it would make species recovery less likely.
“The cut block itself is in a highly fragmented area,” Foy told The Observer. “Fragmented” in this context means the old growth areas are scattered among clear-cut patches and younger forests.
Foy said the fragmented nature of potential habitat for spotted owls comes down to the federal and provincial governments having different plans to preseve the species.
“The federal government recognizes the central problem and the true reason why we’re down to one wild-born spotted owl. The province seems not willing to recognize that,” Foy added. “The provincial plan, to us, seems to rely on captive breeding likely forever. It’s a bit like a fishing lake that you always have to dump fish into because the lake cannot produce enough fish to match with fishing.”
While adult spotted owls can potentially do fine in a fragmented landscape, the issue is young owls have been unable to fledge – or develop wings for flight – and end up traveling further than normally necessary to feed. This results in a disproportionately high number of young owls starving or being eaten by predators.
Foy said the federal plan could potentially “stitch together” old-growth or nearly old-growth habitat areas, but the continued distribution of logging permits under provincial law hinders conservation efforts considerably.
The spotted owl’s range within B.C. stretches from the Lillooet area to the Howe Sound northwest of Vancouver.
“There’s a lot of suitable habitat that’s going down,” Foy said. “Not only are we losing places like Chehalis, which are mapped by the federal government as critical habitat, but we’re still losing old-growth suitable habitat. Forests that get logged like Chehalis today, we don’t know that full impact for another 50 years.”
Federal efforts are not without criticism. In October, the federal government walked back an emergency order to protect the endangered northern spotted owl, which would prevent logging in two watersheds in the Fraser Canyon. This drew condemnation from the Spô’zêm (Spuzzum) First Nation.
“Canada got it wrong. They followed the cue of the B.C. government and yet it doesn’t have a credible plan when it comes to the spotted owl nor proper consultation with First Nations about what happens in the owl’s habitat,” Spô’zêm Chief James Hobart stated. “The province’s own logging agency, BC Timber Sales, continues to tell companies it’s business as usual and they can cut old-growth even in areas targeted for deferrals, that it’s up to them to decide. B.C. has turned its back on the last spotted owl.”
The Spô’zêm community (who call the owls Skelúle?) revere the owls as important relatives to their people, saying their presence is indicative of the health of the old-growth forests.
In addition to logging in Chehalis, Foy expressed concern about the proposed emergency evacuation route through Sasquatch Provincial Park north of Harrison Hot Springs.
“The proposal exists for a good reason, but it can have a terrible effect,” Foy said. He said while the road would allow for easier evacuation, it could also open up access to logging in the wildlife habitat area that surrounds the park.
“Under provincial legislation, that wildlife habitat area is open to logging, and what’s holding it back is a road access, which is now up for discussion,” he added.
In 2017, when then-premier John Horgan and the NDP came to power, they promised a provincial species at risk law, which would create a regulatory structure for the use of provincial land. However, this law has yet to materialize. In 2021, B.C. and the federal government announced the Nature Agreement, which called for immediate action toward the recovery of the spotted owl and $1 billion in joint federal-provincial funding to permanently protect a vast swath of old-growth forest.
“Even though (the Nature Agreement) is a very welcome development, there’s no timeline, it’s not a legislation. It doesn’t give citizens a right to go to court,” Foy said. “It’s nothing like what a true species at risk law would be.”
The Nature Agreement runs through March 2030.
On a grassroots level, Foy encourages anyone concerned to write in to their government officials.
“People can help by writing in every time they hear about another piece of old-growth habitat being cut down; that’s where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “These promises are pretty high-level, but as citizens, we see what’s going on on the ground.”
– With files from Kemone Moodley