It’s a sad day for conservation in B.C.
Two Northern Spotted Owls have been found dead, bringing the critically endangered species’ wild population back down to one.
Part of the “historic” release that took place in Spuzzum First Nation territory in early August, the owls’ deaths were discovered earlier this month when their GPS responders and remains were found.
In the wake of this, Spuzzum First Nation Chief James Hobart released a joint statement on Friday (May 12), with Nathan Cullen, the Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship (MOWLRS), and Jasmine McCulligh, the facility co-ordinator for the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program.
“As a cautionary note to anyone who may believe that this loss has in any way diminished our efforts, we take on the challenge to push the pendulum even further to harmonize all moving parts. We took on this challenge together, and we will continue to keep on the intended path of re-population of Skelúle?,” Hobart said in the release. “While we hoped this day would not come so soon, we also knew from the start that we were taking on a project that had many variables.
“In the coming months, I promise that we will honour our relatives not only by retracing their last days, but also by retracing every step we took up until the owls’ release and after to better ascertain what we could have done differently to ensure their survival.”
Until the recent passing, three of the tiny owls lived in the B.C. wilderness, with the fourth owl recovering at a rehabilitation centre after it was suspected to have been hit by a train in October.
In hopes of supporting their population’s recovery, an old-growth logging ban was extended for part of the Fraser Canyon (where the birds were released) for another two years. An emergency order was also being recommended, earlier this year by the federal government, to help protect the spotted owl and it’s habitat from further logging and other activity that could disrupt their population growth.
Including the owl at the centre, three of the owls were/are male and one is female (who was born in, and still remains in, the wild).
The spotted owls, whose name in Spuzzum is Skelúle? (Northern Spotted Owl is the name given by settlers of Canada), are seen as important relatives of the First Nation community, whose “presence are indicative of the health of the environment.”
An assembled team — made up of representatives of Spuzzum, the B.C. government, biologists, and Northern Spotted Owl experts — worked together from the beginning of the project.
Spuzzum, in partnership with the provincial Spotted Owl Breeding and Release Program were hoping to eventually release as many as 20 spotted owls per year. Three owls —all males born in the breeding facility in Langley — were first introduced into protected forests in the Anderson Wildlife Habitat Area and the Spuzzum Wildlife Habitat Area in the Fraser Canyon last year.Later, they were moved to aviaries in the forest and fed for several days to allow them to get used to hunting in their traditional environment. Eventually, the aviaries were opened so the owls could leave and hunt on their own.
The release, which was a significant step towards an eventual self-sustaining population in B.C., was a carefully planned government-to-government process that incorporated Indigenous knowledge and guidance from Hobart. A detailed assessment of the birds’ readiness was also necessary for their important move, which would see their return to Spuzzum.
In the time leading up to the release, the province worked with the First Nations in B.C. to protect more than 280,000 hectares of spotted owl habitat in the Cascade region under the Spotted Owl Management Plan — a territory that can support 250 owls. Ministry staff were also prepared (and continue to do so) to help the owls, such as providing supplemental feeding. Spuzzum Nation land guardians and members were (and continue to do so) also providing support with their knowledge of the health and well-being of the land.
While the news, Hobart said, has “extremely unsettled” his spirit, he also understood the hurdles associated with the project, as well as the challenges of “marrying science with Indigenous knowledge” even though it “could provide the best results.” He also acknowledged that, despite the team’s best efforts, “the two owls may have been summoned by their ancestors to restore balance in that space.”
Hobart also extended deepest sympathies, on behalf of Spuzzum, towards McCulligh and the entire breeding centre staff.
“As the host Nation, we extend our deepest sympathy to Jasmine McCulligh and the entire breeding centre staff, as we’re aware that you have put your trust in our hands,” he said. “”I promise that it’s with new resolve and determination that we will increase our efforts, doing whatever it takes to avoid ever having to experience this space in time again.”
In the same press release, Cullen said the cause of the death for the owls is still unknown. He said reaching this point in the program, of being able to release individuals into the wild, without have been possible without the knowledge-sharing, participation, and support of Hobart and Spuzzum.
“The loss of these two spotted owls is certainly unfortunate, and it will help us learn more about raising and releasing spotted owls and how to guide the recovery of this species. We remain confident in our overall approach and optimistic that we’ll see more positive results in the years to come,” he said. “The population of spotted owls at the Langley breeding facility must continue to grow to produce enough offspring to be released into the wild to support the species’ long-term recovery.
“Releasing spotted owls that were born at the facility is an essential component of the program. It’s not without risk, and we acknowledge that there is much that we have to learn and discover so that we can support these owls to survive and become established in the wild.”
McCulligh, who recently said that it could be “50 years or longer before there is a sustainable number of northern spotted owls in the wild,” said the loss has not deterred the her staff nor the program. According to McCulligh, the program has spent “dedicated the past 15 years to caring for its breeding population of spotted owls” with the hope that, one day, the offspring can be eventually released into the wild.
“We spent countless hours nurturing these owls, from their first heartbeats to their first flights. It was an exciting and rewarding moment to finally see three of them released into the wild last summer,” she said in the press release. “Although this is clearly not the result we had wished for, we are committed to learning as much as we can from this experience to help the breeding and release program move forward.
“Each time we see the owls or hear their calls at the breeding centre, we are reminded that our job is to care for them and prepare them for life in the wild.”