From the January 2016 Birding Community E-bulletin:
In early December, a major demographic study on the condition of Northern Spotted Owls appeared in The Condor. Produced by a team of federal scientists, this research indicated that a range-wide decline of nearly 4 percent per year was estimated for the owls from 1985 to 2013. This was based data from 11 study areas across Washington, Oregon, and northern California,
Specifically, Northern Spotted Owl populations declined 55-77 percent in Washington, 31-68 percent in Oregon, and 32-55 percent in California. In addition, population declines are now occurring in study areas in southern Oregon and northern California that were previously experiencing little to no detectable decline through 2009.
While they do occur in young forests in some areas, these owls are strongly associated with old growth forest in most of their Pacific Northwest range. In response to the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl as Threatened in 1990, the Northwest Forest Plan was launched in 1994 to create a series of forest reserves to protect existing habitat and develop future habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. Those future reserves are vital. Because the owl is highly dependent on older forest, once the older forests are logged it can take many decades before suitable habitat can regrow.
Dr. Katie Dugger, at the USGS Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and lead author on the report, said that the amount of suitable habitat required by Northern Spotted Owls for "nesting and roosting is important because spotted owl survival, colonization of empty territories, and number of young produced tends to be higher in areas with larger amounts of suitable habitat, at least on some study areas."
Many conservationists have concluded that the Northwest Forest Plan has at least successfully slowed the decline of Northern Spotted Owls, but the current plan may still not be enough to stabilize the population.
The presence of Barred Owls, expanding into the range of Northern Spotted Owls and competing with them, is another complication. Removing Barred Owls has been promoted as a way to address the problems confronting Northern Spotted Owls. We covered this controversial activity in August 2013:
In one study area in California, where Barred Owl removal began in 2009, the long-term population declines of Spotted Owls were only 9 percent. It remains to be see if this Barred Owl removal has any positive long-term consequences. Moreover, the data indicate that the two species can actually coexist where there is sufficient high-quality habitat available.
Protecting remaining Northern Spotted Owl habitat at least means the maintenance and expansion the reserve network of the Northwest Forest Plan. A large amount of this habitat should eventually become available if the Northwest Forest Plan is allowed to continue working to restore the old growth forest ecosystem. Preserving as much high-quality habitat as possible on non-federal lands is also a necessity.
For more information on this problem see this news item from the American Bird Conservancy:
and this article from the Willits News (from in Mendocino County, California):