Can owls and loggers coexist?

The American Northwest was host to bitter struggles between loggers and wildlife advocates throughout the 1990s. Conservationists argued that logging was detrimental to spotted owl populations, while loggers argued that owl-related restricitons put thousands of loggers out of work. Fortunately, the modern-day relationships between logging companies and wildlife researchers is better in eastern Russia, where the endangered Blakiston’s Fish-owl makes its home.

One of the world’s largest owls, Blakiston’s Fish-owl (Bubo blakistoni) (hereafter, ‘Fish-owl’) relies upon the old growth forests in riparian areas of northeastern Asia for hunting and nesting, but they suffer not just from habitat loss and degradation through logging, but also from poaching and from overfishing. The fish-owl’s favorite meal, after all, is a nice tasty salmon.

While old-growth forests survived Soviet rule thanks to a law restricting tree harvest within 5 kilometers of a river, restrictions on logging have largely been non-existent (or, in some cases, gone largely unenforced) since the collapse of the USSR. And with logging activities come the clearing of logging roads, which opens up the landscape for other human uses. Most of Russia’s far east is uninhabited; the only way that most folks can access it is through those roads. As a result, fish owls get caught in fishing nets and freeze when trapped by snares intended for furry mammals. Some are specifically hunted because trappers fear they ruin the pelts of those furry mammals. Others are simply hit by cars.

Despite their protected status both internationally and regionally, these fish-owls have no explicit conservation plan for them, and scientific studies on the raptors are so scant that they don’t have enough statistical power to help form management plans. That’s why University of Minnesota biologist Jonathan C. Slaght and Russian Academy of Sciences researcher Sergei G. Surmach turned to a 20,000 square kilometer region of fish-owl habitat in eastern Russia, bordered by the Sea of Japan, to assess its potential for protecting the birds.

They discovered that the majority (43%) of suitable nesting and foraging habitats were situated within logging leases, while only 19% of such lands were within protected areas. In the area leased to logging companies at least 24 fish-owls could maintain suitable territories. If logging were to increase unrestricted, protected areas could maintain a population of perhaps as few as five individuals. What that means is that either resource extraction needs to be halted entirely, or (more likely) conservationists need to find a way to work with loggers to protect the birds.

The good news is that these collaborations have already begun. According the Wildlife Conservation Society, which in part funded the study, one of the largest logging companies in the area has begun working with biologists to identify patches of riparian forest that are crucial for the fish-owl’s continued survival, such as those with potential nesting trees and along stretches of river rich in salmon. Slaght and Surmach call these “specially-protected forest patches” and say that, if combined with existing riparian conservation measures, could become a “keystone property of a fish-owl conservation plan.” Indeed, if logging companies in the area all protected fish-owl habitat, the protected area protected would triple, covering nearly half of all portential fish-owl territories in the study area.

The researchers also recommend that logging roads be cut as far from water as possible, with at least 100 meters between the river and the road, and that if bridges are necessary they be constructed in such a way as to avoid obstructing salmon migration. When selecting trees to cut down for roads, loggers should choose species less detrimental to the owls, like aspens and Dahurian larch, rather than the trees a fish-owl might choose for a nest. Finally, after the company has stopped using a given road, it should be closed to prevent others from using it for other purposes, whether legal or illegal. “Just as known fish-owl nest trees should be a priority… unused logging roads near nest trees should be a priority for closure,” as well, they write.

In most parts of the world, it’s likely that wildlife conservation plans will have to account for at least some resource extraction and habitat alteration. In cases like this, says Surmach, where economic needs and wildlife management needs can both be safely addressed, “everybody wins.” – Jason G. Goldman | 07 October 2015

Source: Slaght, J. C., & Surmach, S. G. (2015). Blakiston’s Fish-owl Bubo blakistoni and logging: Applying resource selection information to endangered species conservation in Russia. Bird Conservation International. DOI: 10.1017/S0959270915000076.

Header image: J. Slaght, WCS Russia.