Return of the owl: a decades-long fight finally brings the ‘messenger of the forest’ home

The release of three northern spotted owls was the culmination of decades of work, civil service battles, and Indigenous advocacy. The future, though, remains perilous.

By Tyler Olsen | January 19, 2023 |5:00 am

By Tyler Olsen and Grace Kennedy

For days, the three owls looked out at the forests of their ancestors from the inside of an aviary.

They were alone, mostly. Human would come to feed them, as they had done at their former home in Langley, but the sounds of other owls in neighbouring aviaries were gone.  Instead, all they heard was the sounds of a Fraser Canyon forest in early August.  Beyond their cage was not a broad, wide valley, but a narrow, rocky canyon. Sometimes new, tasty creatures wandered into their new home.

And then, one day, a prayer was said and the doors opened.

The SkelúleɁ had returned.

Continues below

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

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• • • • •

Prologue

The release of three northern spotted owls last summer was the culmination of decades of work, inter-governmental battles, and personal dedication. For the Spô’zêm First Nation, it marked the return of three “messengers of the forest.” For their chief, the birds rekindled memories of his own mother and the sounds of his childhood. For a dedicated band of civil servants, it marked a hard-won bureaucratic victory. And for all, it signaled the beginning of a next step, and new questions about the forest’s futures.

For the birds, meanwhile, the opening of their cages was just the beginning. A life of freedom beckoned. But with freedom came peril. Two owls would prosper. One owl’s life would face new challenges.

The story of the northern spotted owl starts, and ends, in the forest.

• • • • •

Chapter 1

The messenger

For thousands of years, northern spotted owls filled the forests of the Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon. Their distinctive four-note call could be heard, usually at dawn or dusk, in the ancient Douglas fir stands stretching between California and BC.

The birds’ call was once described by the Smithsonian as being “vaguely like a cross between a muted rooster call and a French horn: ‘hoot-hootoot-hoo.’” Growing up in the 1960s, Spô’zêm (Spuzzum) First Nation Chief James Hobart would hear their cries outside his home. Their presence and ubiquitous sound were ingrained in the fabric of life—enough so to be a key in a frustrated parent’s toolbox.

“Our owls would be part of our bedtime stories,” Hobart told The Current recently. “But it wasn’t in a good way.” If Hobart and his siblings were making too much noise, their mom would suggest the hooting owls were trying to figure out which one they would carry off.

The Spô’zêm people knew the owls as SkelúleɁ—the “messengers of the forest.” Their feathers were held in high regard and displayed prominently on ceremonial headgear.

The owls’ nobility was well-earned.

The Spô’zêm collected medicines on the forest floor, constructed homes from cedar logs, and used the boughs of trees elsewhere in their structures. They depended on the forest. And the owls told them whether they were using the forest properly or not. There was a spiritual sense to this. But also a very real scientific one.

The northern spotted owl has evolved to thrive in old-growth Douglas fir forests with multiple, high canopy layers and wide open spaces below them. The owls sit high in those trees—still, and camouflaged. Like many owls, the spotted owl’s brown-and white feathers have evolved to allow the birds to blend in with the trees on which they perch. They use their sharp eyes in the darkness to spot prey on the forest floor below.

The Spô’zêm came to learn that the owl’s presence was linked directly to the health of the forest—and reflected the impact that humans had on the land.

“They would come back to us and they would inform us about [the forest],” Hobart said. “When their numbers were up, the forest was healthy…. we would use the SkelúleɁ as our primary messenger for the health of that ecosystem.”

Today, scientists use a slightly different term to describe many of the same characteristics that made the owl so important to the Spô’zêm people—they are the epitome of an “indicator species.”

Spô’zêm First Nation Chief James Hobart 📷 BC Government/Flickr
Spô’zêm First Nation Chief James Hobart 📷 BC Government/Flickr

Logging and settlement

Settlers discovered the owls in the mid-1800s as they began to log old-growth forests around North America. They quickly became some of the best studied owls in the world, though settlers didn’t document the birds existence in BC until 1903.

But as logging trucks spread through the Fraser Canyon, the northern spotted owls began to vanish.

Hobart’s own grandfather was a logger in the middle of the century and saw the effects firsthand.

“He’d say that the spotted owl was showing up dead,” Hobart said. “So they ended up moving a lot of their logging sites away from there because of the knowledge they had.”

But that historic knowledge was dwindling among the Spô’zêm people. And among newcomers, it didn’t exist at all.

“There wasn’t as much understanding of how the ecosystem was [changing],” Hobart said. The forests held incredible economic value, and the value of the owl wasn’t prized nearly as much. “You can’t put a dollar value on some of those important things, and we don’t know what’s important until years later.”

In the early 70s, Spô’zêm matriarch Hrome’Tik’Inquakosen—Hobart’s mother, Jeannette Hobart—produced batik art featuring the northern spotted owl.

Hobart would grow up watching his mother colour large pieces of cloth in elaborate designs based on the owl’s image. Hrome’Tik’Inquakosen would showcase her work at the PNE, and in shows around Canada. Years later, her son would credit his mother’s work for trying to raise awareness of the bird’s plight. But he said much of the message was lost: the public’s focus remained on the art, not the owls behind it.

Jeannette Hobart's art focused on the northern spotted owl and its importance to her people. 📷 Courtesy James Hobart
Jeannette Hobart’s art focused on the northern spotted owl and its importance to her people. 📷 Courtesy James Hobart

Battles in the forest, and in government

As the northern spotted owls saw their habitats disappear, they faced another threat: the arrival of larger and meaner barred owls. Those owls (whose call Hobart describes as sounding roughly like “who-cooks-for-you”) began competing with, and often killing, the northern spotted owls. (We will have a related story on the removal process in tomorrow’s Current newsletter. Subscribe at the top or bottom of this story.)

The northern spotted owls were clearly dying in huge numbers. But the limited efforts to curb their decline were met by bumper stickers like “Save a Logger, Kill an Owl.” And the BC government, and especially its forest ministry, was focused on promoting logging, not curbing it.

In the mid-1980s, only around 500 of the northern spotted owls remained in Canada and the owl was declared endangered. But the province dragged its feet. Nearly a decade passed before the BC government created a new body to come up with a plan to save BC’s northern spotted owls. And even then, upon its creation, the Canadian Spotted Owl Recovery Team (CSORT) faced the problem that has forever plagued owl recovery efforts: giving the owls a real shot at survival meant reducing logging in large tracts of forest. But the economies of many BC towns, and perhaps the political fortunes of those in power, depended on logging.

The province would end up prioritizing the economy. It adopted a strategy that, it declared, gave the owl population a “reasonable” chance at stabilizing “without significant short-term impacts on timber supply and forestry employment.” Hindsight shows it to have been far more effective at preserving (short-term) logging jobs than saving owls: where thousands of northern spotted owls had once roamed, by the start of 2022, only one single wild spotted owl lived in the wild in British Columbia.

The strategy chosen by BC’s politicians and top bureaucrats was a spectacular failure—and yet there was also progress, if you knew where to look. Because the owl was starting to find friends among a cadre of sometimes-subtly-rebellious civil servants, many of whom would play pivotal roles in the species’ future.

“They seem to have been born with a different mindset,” Hobart told The Current. “They all seem to have come to the table with the same passion, that they needed to save these owls, even going against their own ministry. [It’s] like they said, ‘Whatever it takes, we’ve got to save them.’”

A small glimpse of the intra-government squabble can be seen in a 1998 brochure published by the provincial parks ministry that specifically called on the public to encourage “government to place a high priority on maintaining and recovering endangered and threatened species and their habitats.” In other words, one branch of government was publicly asking citizens to demand better from another branch of government.

Despite those efforts, by the dawn of the new millennia, it was becoming clear that the bird was in serious trouble. There were too few spotted owls in the province to enable the species to build back its own population.

But CSORT (the provincial team created a decade earlier to help recover the species) was adamant that it was still possible to save the birds—and worth trying to do so. There was habitat available for the owls. There were surviving breeding pairs. And the threats to the bird’s habitat, like the barred owl and old growth logging, could be avoided or mitigated. The province just had to commit to actually do enough to help the birds.

And here, another party re-entered the picture.

The northern spotted owl had been re-designated as endangered under new federal legislation introduced in the early ‘90s. That designation brought the federal government into the picture and had helped spur the creation of CSORT in the ‘90s. A decade later, in 2005 as owl populations continued to decline, the feds made another key move. It told Victoria that it couldn’t consider economic values when assessing the feasibility of saving the owls. In other words, it couldn’t decline to save the owls just because it would cost too much money or impair the logging industry.

The provincial government had to at least pretend to care. In 2006, Victoria announced a handful of efforts to try to save the owl and bolster its population. A key part of the plan would be initiating efforts to breed owls in captivity and release them back into old-growth forests.

The plan—and what it didn’t contain—was controversial both inside and outside government. The province’s own biologists said the plan was insufficient. In emails later obtained by reporters, one bird specialist called the plan a “cop-out.” Another said it was equivalent to “putting a Band-Aid on a heart attack.” On the other side, forestry officials fretted that the plan might limit the amount of timber that could be logged. (Although it receives funding from both the provincial and federal governments, the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program is not itself part of government.  Instead, it was founded as an independent non-profit and is now part of the BC Conservation Foundation. It also gets funding from other sources, including donations from the public and BC Hydro.)

Like previous efforts, hindsight would again suggest the plan was insufficient to accomplish its supposed goal. It also overestimated the ease with which the owls could be bred and released into the wild. Because unbeknownst to those at the time, it would take 15 years before a once-captive owl’s silhouette could be seen sitting in a Spuzzum-area tree as two humans looked on in awe.

Continued below

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• • • • •

📷 Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program/www.nsobreedingprogram.com
📷 Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program/www.nsobreedingprogram.com

Chapter 2

The breeders

In February of 2021, a female owl began chasing her mate around the enclosure.

Impress me, she was saying. It’s time to get busy. (You can read more about the mating process here.)

Eventually, he brought her food, reminding her that he would be a good provider. They began searching for a site to build their nest. And by March, they—and the other breeding pairs at the facility—would have had picked a spot and began copulating several times a night. Then, she laid her eggs.

In 15 years, BC’s pioneering owl-breeding program had never successfully raised more than four juveniles to adulthood. By June of 2021, seven chicks had grown enough to begin hopping around their aviaries, testing their fuzzy wings, and exploring under the watchful eye of their mothers.

Two of the chicks didn’t know it, but they were carrying far more than owl fluff on their backs.

As they learned to hunt in their custom aviaries, they were carrying the hopes of a generation of BC biologists, environmental advocates, and Indigenous communities. The messenger of the old-growth was set for a return. It wouldn’t be easy.

📷 Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program
📷 Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program

The facility

In 2007, biologists captured three northern spotted owls and brought them back to the Mountainview Conservation Centre in Langley. The centre was the home of the province’s just-launched Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program.

As with everything about the northern spotted owl, their capture was somewhat controversial; some advocates blasted the government for removing some of the last owls from the wild while continuing to allow the logging of their habitat.

Nevertheless, the three owls were brought under strict quarantine into aviaries. They joined three other rescued owls. Then, the scientists waited to see if any of them would breed.

They got lucky. In the first year, one egg turned into one baby owl. The second year, another egg hatched. But at a rate of one egg per year, the program would never produce enough owls to breed 250 birds for the wild.

A TV report from 2007 declared that the program was expected to last for “at least five years.” It would end up taking far, far longer.

The chicks were fragile and fussy, and it took years for biologists to get more than a few eggs to hatch.

In 2011, staff at the facility began to artificially incubate eggs and hand-rear chicks to boost population numbers.

Northern spotted owls often lay two or three eggs at a time. Around a month passes between when an owl lays an egg and when it begins to hatch. It can take up to 80 hours for a new chick to break out of its egg. When it does, the staff at the breeding facility take them away for 10 days to hand-rear them, using tweezers to feed them dissected bits of dead rat. (Staff typically try to get their breeding pairs to “double-clutch”—taking away an egg can lead an owl to attempt to lay another set of eggs.)

The hand-rearing helped, but it remained slow going. Throughout the 2010s, only a couple chicks would survive each turn of the calendar. By 2016, there were 17 birds. In a decade, the program’s population had only grown by 11 owls. (In addition to breeding, birds in the program have come from a variety of sources, including the United States, to ensure there is a diversity of genetics in the system.)

“Their fertility was a really big problem,” Jasmine McCulligh, the program’s facility co-ordinator told The Current.

The facility’s goal is to produce a consistent stream of owls, so that the breeding centre’s population can be maintained while surplus birds can be released to the wild. The province says it hopes to one day be releasing 20 birds each year. But while there had been hopes that the first birds would be reintroduced to the wild in 2018, the population was still too small and the owls weren’t producing enough offspring.

Umbrella species

A decade ago, McCulligh had just graduated from university when she came across an internship posting for a breeding program near Vancouver.

She was from Ontario, but had always been drawn to the geography and environment of western British Columbia. She had some previous experience volunteering with a captive breeding program. But that job was raising cheetahs in South Africa, not birds in Langley. Indeed, before applying for the job, she had never heard of the northern spotted owls.

But McCulligh got the internship and was instantly hooked. A decade later, she is the program’s facility co-ordinator, in charge of rearing and prospective release of the owls.

“When you see a spotted owl, that is really enough to get people involved and interested,” she said. “Their presence is indescribable.”

Jasmine McCulligh 📷 BC Government/Flickr
Jasmine McCulligh 📷 BC Government/Flickr

It wasn’t just the owls’ presence that made them worth devoting a decade to. Yes, they were magnificent and charismatic. But they were also important.

Where the Spô’zêm describe the owls as the “messenger of the forest,” scientists call them an indicator species: one whose numbers and health provides a key gauge of the health of an entire ecosystem.

“You realize pretty quickly that it’s not just about the spotted owl, it’s about the habitat they represent and the old growth forest,” McCulligh said.

The owls can also be considered an “umbrella species,” which is a slightly different term. Umbrella species are seen as particularly important for an ecosystem either because they provide key benefits to their habitat, or because they themselves represent the habitat in some way. By protecting an umbrella species, one can also preserve an entire ecosystem’s worth of plants and animals. The owl, in this case, is an umbrella that can shield the habitat beneath it.

The idea also speaks to the bureaucratic power attached to the breeding and, crucially, the releasing of the northern spotted owl.

The owls are endangered and protected, and a mating pair in the wild needs 30 square kilometres of habitat to live and hunt in. So introducing an owl in an area brings protections for all the other species living within its extensive habitat.

“That’s why the spotted owl is so important: because of all the other species it can help protect,” McCulligh said.

But it’s not even just that. Because if you want to increase the number of northern spotted owls in the wild, you also have to increase the area protected. As Hobart noted, you can’t cram more owls into those 30 square kilometres: if they have to compete for space and territory, the result is often a violent battle that ends in the death of one of the birds.

Re-birth

Before 2021, the best year in the facility’s history had seen four young birds survive. But 2022 was different.

By June, seven birds had survived rom the previous year and the facility was at capacity. The facility now had 30 spotted owls and seven breeding pairs. And with seven one-year-olds and an unbalanced sex ratio, the biologists could finally pull the trigger on a decision 15 years in the making: it was finally time to start sending some birds home. Two months later, three would be on their way to the Fraser Canyon forests. It was just a matter of picking the right ones.

The birds were poked and prodded by a veterinarian. But, Hobart said, “A lot of it was up to the owls.”

One owl that had previously been selected for release was replaced at the last minute after a veterinarian had doubts about its fitness, he said. 

Mostly, they were judged for how well they killed (and ate) smaller animals in captivity, McCulligh said. The survival of the birds in the wild depended on their ability to hunt and catch their own food, and biologists tested their ability to do so in captivity. (The owls were transitioned to all-live prey before being released; the program eventually hopes to start a flying squirrel colony to increase birds’ hunting talents.

But for release the birds needed one other thing: a place to live. And hundreds of kilometres northeast of the breeding facility, the forest they would come to call home had survived bureaucratic trials of its own.

The Spuzzum watershed

The forests near the Spô’zêm First Nation are ideal for logging. Filled with Douglas fir, hemlock, and red cedar—and conveniently located near the Trans Canada Highway and two continental rail lines—the stands had been logged for decades.

By 2003, the province estimated that only 16% of the Spuzzum watershed had trees that were older than 250 years old. And while typically timber companies would replant logged areas so they could reharvest the “secondary” growth years later, Hobart said that process fell apart decades ago leaving a lack of secondary forests to cut.

So the province continued to allow the cutting of old-growth trees.

Only small pockets of forest had already been set aside for northern spotted owls. In 2006, the province expanded the wildlife habitat areas in an effort to protect the places where the owls were known to be living the year before. But despite the protections, much of the forest remained open for logging and trucks kept coming.

Northern spotted owls historically lived across southwestern British Columbia. The Current addded colours to this greyscale provincial map showing its natural range, and where protected habitat exists. 🗺 BC Government
Northern spotted owls historically lived across southwestern British Columbia. The Current addded colours to this greyscale provincial map showing its natural range, and where protected habitat exists. 🗺 BC Government

“One of the sad things we had to face is that part of the [provincial government] was not caring at all about the [spotted owl] program,” Hobart told The Current. “They were auctioning lots of old growth right next to them, and the activity would have scared away the ones that are there.”

He said that the cutting of old growth was unsustainable and wouldn’t fill the gap left by the mismanaged secondary timber supply.

Eventually he had enough. In January 2021, he sent a strongly-worded letter to BC Timber Sales, telling them that the future of the owls should come before logging.

“Our Nation’s intent is to send a clear message to your entire ministry that Spô’zêm Nation is no longer on the map for resource extraction and/or exploration,” Hobart wrote in his letter to BC Timber.

The spotted owl’s advocates like Hobart also again called in the federal government. And as it did twice before, Ottawa used the Species At Risk Act to lean on the province to do more.

“We were fortunate that Canada came in and said, ‘Whatever it takes, you guys have to let this program work,’” Hobart said.

A month after Hobart’s letter, the British Columbian and Canadian governments jointly announced a deferral of future logging in the Spuzzum watershed.

👉 This story continues below.

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• • • • •

📷 BC Government/Flickr
📷 BC Government/Flickr

Chapter 3

The pre-release

For a moment 15 years in the making, the release of three owls occurred quite suddenly. Two had been born the previous year, in the group of seven. The other had hatched two years prior and would be ineligible for future release if he didn’t make it to the wild that year.

“It was something we talked about for many, many years, and once the decision was actually made, things moved very quickly,” McCulligh said.

That doesn’t mean it was a simple process.

The original plan had been to release two birds fairly quickly: Hobart described it as a “drive by release.” The NSO program called it a “hard release” in one of its newsletters. But Lenore Baker, a Squamish First Nation owl advocate who has worked with Spô’zêm, pushed for more, Hobart said.

“She said, ‘Well, if we’re trying to give them the best chance, we should be trying to acclimatize them in the nation,’” Hobart recalled.

A biologist suggested that such an acclimatization would require the construction of huge, 8,000-cubic-foot cages in which the owls could temporarily live protected in the forests.

So that’s what happened.

“They said, ‘Let’s pull out all the stops,’” Hobart said.

Two of the cages were built on-site, but the road to one location was washed out. So instead, the massive cage was flown to the owl’s future home in a helicopter.

Then it was time for the owls to come home. In early August, Hobart was driving home—almost there—when he got a phone call. The birds were on their way.

Hobart wheeled his truck around.

“It was on an owl’s schedule, it wasn’t ours,” he would later observe.

McCulligh, meanwhile, was driving in a truck up the Fraser Canyon looking at the bumper of the vehicle taking the owls home.

“I was thinking, ‘This is something some people have been working towards for like 30-plus years in their lives,’ she later told The Current. “It was a huge milestone for everybody.”

At the site, the program crew met Hobart and a handful of Spô’zêm and Squamish First Nation youth and members. They held a ceremony to welcome the SkelúleɁ back, with Hobart blessing the owls and the land. The birds were then released into their enclosures and re-introduced to their ancestral land. Somewhere outside, the last remaining wild spotted owl nestled in an old growth tree.

It was a moment fraught with uncertainty. But soon, positive signs emerged in the form of carcasses and bird poop.

While the owls were in the closed cages, they weren’t expected to be catching their own dinners quite yet, so they were being provided with food to eat. But one day, McCulligh and her colleagues were walking through a cage to check for pellets—bits of indigestible material coughed up by the birds. Biologists can use such material to learn about how a bird is living.

“I know what their pellets look like in a captive environment and I found a pellet that was not like a captive pellet,” she said.

The proof was in the pellet: a small, unlucky rodent had wandered into the owl cage, and had become dinner for a bird.

“Somehow a natural prey had made its way into the aviary, and the owl had successfully hunted it,” she said. “Even though we were providing food, this owl chose to hunt a natural prey, which was just so exciting.”

Hobart also perked up when he received updates about the discovery of the carcasses of small rodents in the enclosures.

“That was exciting,” he remembered months later, his face breaking into a grin. “We had a ceremony up there and brought as many people as we could.”

“It felt like a homecoming.”

Opening the cages

The cages were opened in early August following another Spô’zêm ceremony.

Nobody knew what would happen. It was the first release for the first northern spotted owl captive breeding program.

And the owls… well at first, the owls just hung out in their cages.

“They just kind of chilled out,” McCullight said. “It was kind of nerve-wracking. You had to be patient.”

The birds (which had GPS trackers outfitted to them) would approach the entrance and then turn around and head back further into their aviaries.

“It wasn’t like this grand exit that I think a lot of people imagined it was. They were just sitting there and we just had to wait.”

Again: owl time.

The sun descended behind the mountains. The forest was silent, except for the sound of the river in the background. And most of the people left. Only McCulligh and one of her colleagues remained on site. They were watching as one of the three owls cut through the forest air, through the cage’s door, and out into the wider forest.

“It was dark,” McCulligh said, “and you just kind of see this silhouette of an owl flying. It lands in this tree. That’s special to see something like that.”

The humans didn’t say anything. They just watched.

Celebration

The other two birds, meanwhile, kept hanging out. For days they stayed in their safe cages, the doors open, GPS backpacks ready to monitor their movements into the world beyond.

On Aug. 6, just a couple kilometres away from the birds, Spô’zêm First Nation held their annual fish ceremony and celebration, inviting people from First Nations around the region. They also invited the program staffer responsible for monitoring the owls’ GPS data.

Among the guests was a spotted owl named “Small Eyes.” The bird has genetic deformities and couldn’t mate at the breeding facility. Instead, it’s glove-trained and used for educational purposes.

When the staffer returned to his GPS station, he saw the birds were gone. They had been separated by miles from one another, but left within a few minutes of one other, Hobart said.

“It was like somehow they both sent signals to each other and said, ‘Well, I guess we’re ready,’ and they just took off.”

• • • • •

Chapter 4

Survival

Three birds were released to the wild last August.

All three have survived, but their months in the canyon demonstrate the scale of the task ahead.

The owls can be tracked through their GPS units. They also respond to human calls. So every now and then, a member from the breeding program will head up the canyon, hoot into the wild (or play a recording), and an owl will fly down from the canopy to check on the intruder into their territory.

The human will change the batteries on the GPS unit, and inspect and weigh the bird.

Of the three birds, one male was released in close proximity to the last remaining wild owl, a female. But though the two initially called back and forth to one another, the male took off to the west soon after his release, Hobart said.

That wasn’t unexpected. It is the female that chooses the male, Hobart was told, and the released bird needed to set himself up in his territory. Then he might be able to attract a partner.

That bird found a spot near a lake on the west side of the canyon. Hobart said the move may have been for the best.

“He’s found what one of the biologists said is one of the best places for northern spotted owls to handle their first winter,” Hobart said. “It has got granite slopes that hold the heat, and hold a lot of animals and have some protection from the wind and bigger predators.”

The female is also wintering well, Hobart has been told.

The second male did not fare as well.

That owl flew south of Spuzzum, his GPS monitor showed. Then it stopped moving.

The owl was later found by chance with a broken wing and scratched eye near the railway tracks that snake through the canyon. Hobart says it appears likely the bird collided with a train. (The owl breeding centre in Langley is located near train tracks and Hobart wonders if that may have contributed to a collision. But train tracks are also known to attract rodents, which could then have attracted the owl.)

Surviving a collision with a train (if that is what happened) is unlikely for any animal. That goes double for a bird in a sparsely populated place like the Fraser Canyon, where a non-fatal injury can leave it easy prey for other animals and inhibit its ability to find food for itself.

But thanks to technology, the northern spotted owl was found alive. He was scooped up and taken to an animal hospital, where he recovered for two months. He’s now back at the breeding centre. A provincial spokesperson wrote that he will be assessed later for potential release.

“It’s amazing that he’s alive and able to fly again,” Hobart said.

Over the next five years, the program hopes to release 25 birds.

Accomplishing that goal is ambitious (and will still leave the owls extremely endangered). It will mean keeping an eye on the encroaching barred owls, which aren’t endangered. Part of the northern spotted owl recovery efforts have involved culling the more aggressive birds in certain areas. And, Hobart repeated, it will also require limiting logging, road construction, and even exploration of areas not just where existing owls are living, but where their offspring may later want to carve out their own territories.

“The spotted owl has to be able to breed and their offspring need to be able to migrate to a different old growth polygon in order to live without competing with its parents,” Hobart said.

Those challenges are to come. And fertility also remains an issue: only two juveniles survived from 2022’s breeding season, and no decisions have been made about potential releases this coming year.

But for Hobart and other champions of the spotted owl, the last year is a reason for optimism and hope. Those who took part knew that release was a risk: before the three birds were released into the wild, all the parties agreed not to blame one another if they weren’t able to survive.

“We’re trying to consider this as stumbling forward,” he said. “If all three didn’t make it, we’d have to try again and go back to the drawing board.”

Today, though, the Fraser Canyon’s northern spotted owl population is triple that of what it was a year ago. It’s just three birds. But it’s progress.

“The owls are, as we say, our messengers, and I finally heard the message,” Hobart said. “The messages back are one of gratefulness from the ecosystem that somebody’s finally paying attention.

“Hopefully history will look back and see this as a time when we took a stand for those that can’t speak.”

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the pellets found by the biologists were coughed up, not pooped out. We have also made a few other corrections including: the injured owl was found by a passerby, not by the breeding program’s staff.  Small eyes is glove-trained and not domesticated, but didn’t fly at the fish ceremony. The owls also wore GPS backpacks, not anklets.  The owls also had an unbalanced sex, not gender, ratio.

The removal of the northern spotted owl demanded the removal of the barred owl, another more-aggressive type of owl. Some removals were relocations. Other were of a more-lethal variety. To get a related story on that aspect, join 30,000 Fraser Valley locals and subscribe to our daily newsletter. You can see what it looks like here.

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Tyler Olsen

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