Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) recovery strategy: chapter 16

13. Socio-economic Considerations

The SORT recognizes that the RENEW Recovery Manual (ROMAN 2003) does not require a detailed socio-economic analysis to be incorporated in the recovery strategy, as the assessment of recovery feasibility is to be based entirely on biological, not economical issues. Rather, the socio-economic analyses are to be conducted during, and incorporated into, the recovery action plans after the biological and technical feasibility of recovery has been determined in the recovery strategy.  However, due to the significance of the potential costs and impacts of recovery actions, or lack thereof, for this species in British Columbia, it was felt prudent to incorporate a strategic-level description of the scale, scope and location of the impacts.  It will be equally important, but likely more difficult, to assess the value of the benefits of recovery, both in economic terms and in terms of not losing a native species.  The following sections are an attempt to outline some of the aspects of socio-economic costs and benefits that will apply to recovery of the Spotted Owl in British Columbia These will be used to guide more detailed socio-economic analysis as the SORT moves on to identifying and assessing potential recovery actions.



The costs of recovery can be broken into various categories including the costs of increased habitat protection, the costs of establishing and implementing population augmentation activities, the costs for activities targeted at improving survival and recruitment, and the costs associated with conducting needed inventory and research. 

Increased Habitat Protection

Habitat protection is a key issue throughout the species’ range.  The Spotted Owl has no chance of recovery if sufficient suitable habitat is not conserved in the appropriate spatial distribution throughout its range.  Some habitat within its range is considered non-recoverable.  This is largely limited to urban and rural habitat in the Lower Mainland, much of which is under private or municipal ownership and cannot feasibly be converted to suitable Spotted Owl habitat.  One major exception to this is the Capilano, Seymour and Coquitlam watersheds of the Greater Vancouver Regional District.  These are large areas of forested habitat north of the City of Vancouver that are managed to protect the Greater Vancouver water supply.  They are already included within the existing Spotted Owl Management Plan (SOMP) and do not require additional protection.  

As the Spotted Owl requires large areas of old-growth forest habitat for breeding, foraging and dispersal, it is anticipated that the biggest impact of increased habitat protection may be in the forest sector, including the British Columbia Timber Sales Program, through impacts on the timber harvesting land base (THLB) and timber supply.  Potential THLB impacts will be limited to the parts of the Squamish, Chilliwack and Cascade Forest Districts (FDs) within the species’ range.  It is important to note that the impacts to the forest sector, in terms of total additional hectares set aside, may not be as great as anticipated.  There are already 363,000 ha managed for Spotted Owls within the Squamish and Chilliwack FDs under the existing SOMP.  There is no habitat set aside in the Lillooet area of the Cascades FD, which currently holds several active territories.  However, the draft Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) for the Lillooet area does contain an allotment of habitat to be dedicated to Spotted Owl management that is sufficient to incorporate most of these active territories.  Theoretically, if the LRMP habitat budget is added to what already exists in SOMP, depending on the amount of overlap that can be incorporated through clustering of adjacent territories, there may not be a need to add much more total area to have enough territory to meet the recovery strategy’s goal of 250 adults owls (assuming this is roughly equal to 125 pairs/territories).  However, the existing network of conservation areas is quite fragmented, and the final Habitat Action Plan may require the spatial arrangement of these areas be reconfigured, including the establishment of connectivity corridors to allow for better dispersal between them, and to the U.S. populations to the south.  Ongoing modeling efforts should help determine how best to arrange the conservation areas on the landscape and how best to accomplish this over time.  These modeling efforts could also assist to capture and compare timber impacts of different landscape scenarios. The need for some additional protection is likely in the short term to ensure protection of survival habitat (areas that contain known occupied sites), but other changes could be incorporated/recruited over a longer time frame.

Other development activities that may be impacted to a lesser extent include mining operations, hydro developments (e.g., powerlines, dams), recreational developments (e.g., ski hill expansions), and urban/rural developments (e.g., roads, housing, agricultural expansion).  In addition, much of the range of the Spotted Owl is under some form of First Nations land claim and some Indian Reserves may overlap suitable habitat.  It is unknown how resolution of First Nations interests may impact on habitat protection measures

Population Augmentation

Although habitat protection is required to enable recovery, population augmentation could have a significant impact on the level of recovery attained and the rate at which it occurs.  Given the extremely low population estimates currently available for British Columbia, some level of population augmentation may be necessary to prevent extirpation in the short term.  Augmentation programs could be applied anywhere in the species range, but would be focused most on areas where populations appear to have “winked out”, or where single birds are believed to be persevering alone with little chance of finding a mate.  

As stated earlier in this report, three approaches to augmentation are considered feasible.  These three approaches each have there own costs.  A brief summary of the scope of the items to be considered for socio-economic assessment include:

  • Capture/Overwinter/Release:  Costs associated with capturing birds, building pens, providing food and care over winter, and release/monitor program in spring.
  • Translocation: Costs associated with capturing, translocating and monitoring single birds to attempt to create breeding pairs.
  • Captive-breeding:  Costs associated with capturing birds and building long-term pens suitable for captive breeding, as well as associated release/monitoring programs for young produced.

In addition, before proceeding with these approaches, strategies that assess available methodologies, past experience, people and materials required, and chances of success should be prepared.  People involved in these programs may include SORT members, MoE staff, and contractors.  Partnerships would need to be made with private facilities for breeding and housing birds.  Some of these actions would require long term commitments to facilities, staff and funding.

Increased Survival

Another approach is to try to ensure survival of existing birds and increase the rate of recovery of the population is to attempt to increase their survival in the wild.  The two methods suggested in the recovery strategy include predator/competitor control and winter feeding.  These approaches could be applied to existing wild birds wherever they are known to exist, and/or to any areas where owls have been translocated or introduced.

Predator/competitor control may prove controversial, but is technically feasible, and may be justifiable in areas where considerable effort and cost has already been spent on introductions and translocations.  It would likely be neither economically feasible, nor socially acceptable, to embark on a long-term control program at all territories throughout the Spotted Owl’s range.  Costs associated with this activity would be those associated with hiring people capable and willing to locate and destroy predatory and competing species from designated Spotted Owl areas. 

Winter feeding of juveniles to help them survive their first winter (known to be the period of highest mortality) would require locating young birds and applying transmitters to them in order to be able to track them through the winter to occasionally provide them with food. Costs would include staff/contractor time, costs of radio-transmitters, helicopter rental, and costs of acquiring suitable food items.  If successful, this could prove to be a most cost-effective approach.


Research and inventory are needed to ensure that the recovery actions recommended are based on the best science available and have the greatest likelihood of attaining the recovery goal.  Modeling is required to help determine the best spatial arrangement of habitat on the landscape and what demographic factors are the highest priorities to work on.  Research will help us to better understand the relationships between the owls, their habitat, their prey and their competitors which will result in better management approaches to address these issues. Inventory is needed to find and monitor the owls and their nests sites for habitat protection, population augmentation, and increased survival approaches identified above, as well as to evaluate the success of recovery efforts over time. The greater funding available for research and inventory, the better the science based results will be.   Appendix 2 contains a preliminary list of research topics.  Research and inventory could occur anywhere throughout the owl’s range and would involve SORT members, government and industry scientists, academia and contractors.  Partnerships, creation of a Spotted Owl recovery fund, and use of existing funding agencies could help share the costs.



It will likely be much more difficult to assess the economic value and benefits of recovering the Spotted Owl than it will be to assess the costs.  This is partly because some of the benefits entail reducing the likelihood that a potential punitive action could be taken, and it is very difficult to determine the value of something not occurring.  It is also partly because it is very difficult to put an economic value on an esoteric concept such as preventing extirpation of a species, though some attempts have been made in this regard.  Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that the long term benefits of recovery of a species could outweigh the short term costs.  Some of the benefits that need to be considered include:

  • Prevention of extirpation: The public in Canada have expressed strong support for protection of species at risk as well as a willingness to bear some cost such efforts, so there is an inherent value in doing this.  In addition, costs of recovery increase the more at-risk a species becomes.  While costs for recovery of the Spotted Owl in Canada at its present status are high, they will be much higher if the species becomes extirpated as it will then necessarily have to include captive-breeding, translocation and release programs that will be more expensive than working with an extant species.
  • Provision of ecological services:  Habitat suitable for spotted owls also generates potential benefits in the form of carbon benefits and other ecological services.  While putting a dollar value on these values is difficult, the socio-economic analysis at the action planning stage will discuss these potential benefits in more detail.
  • Protection of other species that require similar habitat:  Due to its requirement for large areas of old-growth forests, the Spotted Owl can be considered an umbrella species for other species within its range that have similar requirements.  Therefore, habitat protection measures for the Spotted Owl could overlap with the amounts needed for other species.  Some examples may include Northern Goshawks, Tailed Frogs (Ascaphus truei), ungulate winter range, Marbled Murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus), Northern Flying Squirrels and numerous plant communities and invertebrate species.
  • Reduction of long-term recovery costs:  The cost of planning for and implementing recovery of species-at risk programs is expensive.  The provincial and federal governments, along with other stakeholders are putting a lot of funds into recovery efforts for the Spotted Owl in British Columbia.  Generally speaking, the more at-risk a species becomes, the more expensive its recovery will be.  Extirpation of the Spotted Owl from British Columbia would not end the province’s responsibility for its recovery.  As long as habitat remains or is recoverable, and the species exists somewhere in its range, recovery is still potentially feasible; however, the costs would be significantly higher.  The sooner a recovery plan for the Spotted Owl can be implemented and tested, the sooner that real progress towards recovery can be made, and the sooner that the costs for recovering this species may decrease.  In addition, due to the relatively large habitat requirements of this species, this can also been seen as a cost avoidance in terms of other recovery programs for overlapping species at risk that will indirectly obtain protection. 
  • Assistance with International Markets:  Taking concrete steps towards the recovery of the Spotted Owl would enable the provincial government to internationally market-message this as an example of best available science being used to provide sound forest and species-at-risk management in British Columbia.
  • Avoidance of Environmental Non-Government Organization (ENGO) lawsuits and other actions:British Columbia has already entered into, and lost, lawsuits with ENGO’s regarding protection of Spotted Owl habitat.  It has also suffered from environmental action opposing timber extraction locally and internationally resulting in associated costs to industry and government. Without appropriate protection measures and actions for such a high profile species as the Spotted Owl, this is likely to increase and could become quite costly.  Creating and implementing a scientifically sound recovery plan could avoid these costs and the repercussions associated with them.
  • Support for industry certification:  The need for industry certification is a direct result of the success environmental boycotts and actions.  Receiving certification is now a major economic benefit to timber companies, which in turn provides an economic benefit to government.  Industry certification is based on an ability to show responsible environmental stewardship.  In the case of lands within the range of the Spotted Owl, this can be best demonstrated by preparing and implementing a scientifically sound recovery plan.  As an additional benefit, having and following such a plan for the Spotted Owl will provide more certainty for timber companies operating in the species’ range.
  • Benefits for tourism:  Tourism is a major revenue producer for British Columbia and to a large part this is due to our image as a “supernatural” location.  This image could be tarnished internationally if we extirpate the Spotted Owl without making every effort possible to prevent it, and this could have a negative impact on the tourist industry and the benefits the government accrues from it.
  • Support for British Columbia’s international reputation/credibility:  Directly related to the item on tourism is the effect that losing such a high profile species could have on the reputation of British Columbia’s government within Canada and abroad, and the potential economic ramifications that could come from this.  ENGO’s have been publicly stating their concerns that the Spotted Owl will soon be extirpated from the province due to the governments lack of action to protect and recover it.  Regardless of the final cause, if this occurs, it will give greater credibility to ENGOs and less to the government for all future endangered species management issues, and this could have considerable economic consequences for the government, and for the province’s industries.  This could be avoided, even if extirpation still occurs, by being able to illustrate that British Columbia has taken all possible appropriate actions necessary to attempt to conserve and recover the species here.
  • Avoidance of federal sanctions:  British Columbia has signed the National Accord regarding the protection of species at risk and as such can be held accountable for their actions regarding recovery and protection of these species.  In addition, the federal Species at Risk Act has been released and its regulations will soon follow.  Under this legislation, it is possible that the federal government could apply its safety net legislation if it believes that British Columbia is not taking the appropriate action to recover and conserve the species in Canada.  This can be avoided entirely by preparing and implementing a recovery plan for the Spotted Owl that is approved by the competent federal minister.

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