A critically endangered northern spotted owl flies through a redwood forest in northern California. Spotted owls are threatened by habitat loss and increased competition from other species, such as barn owls.

Photograph by Michael Nichols
  • The northern spotted owl is a threatened species native to the old-growth cloud forests of the province of British Columbia, Canada, and the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, and California. (This breathtaking photograph was taken in Northern California's redwood forest in 2008.)

    In the 1990s, the owl became a symbol of the bitter conflict between conservation efforts and economic activity. The old-growth forests where northern spotted owls make their homes are lucrative natural resources that provide thousands of jobs in the North American timber industry.

    Habitat loss was listed as a major contributor to the birds' "threatened" status. The timber industry feared that if the northern spotted owl was protected by the federal government, they would be forced to slow or stop logging in some areas.

    1. The "jobs v. owls" debate is not as contentious as it was in the 1990s, partly because the timber industry, conservation groups, and state and federal governments have learned to work together. How do you think these groups have cooperated?

      Answers will vary! Most of these stakeholders live in the region, and they all have an interest in protecting both the environment and the economy of the Pacific Northwest. These stakeholders have rejected the idea that owl conservation will lead to devastating unemployment, or a thriving timber industry will lead to the extinction of the northern spotted owl.

      For instance, the giant timber company Weyerhaeuser maintains a series of protected reserves among its harvest areas. These reserves allow owls to fly from one protected area to another—including state and national forests adjacent to the reserves, where no logging is permitted. The owl populations are not isolated, and economic activity can continue.

    2. Despite the cooperation of timber companies, populations of the northern spotted owl continue to decrease by about 3% a year. What are some possible reasons for this decline?

      Answers will vary! Populations of northern spotted owls continue to decline for a number of reasons: old-growth forests are still being cut down for timber and development; natural disasters, such as fires and storms, can destroy forested areas; and climate change increases the threat of tropical diseases such as West Nile virus.

      However, the biggest threat to the northern spotted owl may be increased competition for resources from another species, the barred owl.

    3. Michael "Nick" Nichols, the artist who took this photograph, is "kind of on a mission, working really hard to tell [endangered species'] story, speaking for them since they can't speak for themselves." How do you think Nick speaks for the northern spotted owl in this photograph?

      Answers will vary! Nick's portrait of this owl gives the bird an enormous amount of dignity and power. It is photographed in the wild, not a zoo, so the bird is comfortable in its natural habitat. (The owl is flying toward a baited lure held by the photographer.) Nick has captured the owl in full flight, making the bird, which is actually rather small, look large and imposing. Finally, the owl's huge, dark eyes seem to look directly at the camera, making startling eye contact with viewers.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    bitter Adjective


    cloud forest Noun

    wooded area, usually high-altitude, almost always covered by clouds and fog.

    conflict Noun

    a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    economic Adjective

    having to do with money.

    federal Adjective

    having to do with a nation's government (as opposed to local or regional government).

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    habitat loss Noun

    the reduction or destruction of an ecosystem, making it less able to support its native species.

    industry Noun

    activity that produces goods and services.

    logging Noun

    industry engaged in cutting down trees and moving the wood to sawmills.

    lucrative Adjective

    profitable or money-making.

    natural resource Noun

    a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.

    old-growth forest Noun

    collection of trees and shrubs that has not been harvested for timber or other uses in about 200 years, although definitions vary. Also called a primeval forest, primary forest, primal forest, or ancient woodland.

    owl Noun

    bird of prey.

    province Noun

    division of a country larger than a town or county.

    Encyclopedic Entry: province
    threatened species Noun

    organism that may soon become endangered.

    timber Noun

    wood in an unfinished form, either trees or logs.

    timber company Noun

    business that harvests trees for wood, paper, or other use.