A team of Pacific Northwest scientists has recommended capturing many or all of British Columbia's remaining northern spotted owls and breeding them at zoos throughout the region in an effort to prevent their extinction.
The recommendation was made two months ago in a 50-page report leaked to Sierra Legal, a Canadian environmental law firm. Sierra Legal posted the report on its Web site Thursday.
Under the plan, designed to prevent the owl's extinction in the province, biologists would capture half or all of the fewer than two dozen birds remaining, breed them at zoos or other wildlife facilities in the Pacific Northwest, and eventually release them back into the wild — as long as the government agrees to protect areas where the owls resettle.
"We do not recommend implementing the captive breeding and reintroduction approach without such a commitment, as one without the other is not likely to succeed," the report said.
Mark Zacharias, director of the provincial government's Species at Risk Coordination Office in Victoria, British Columbia, confirmed that the report had been received.
"We expect to make a decision on it in the next couple of weeks, and we will be looking at additional habitat protections for the spotted owl," he said.
The spotted owl was a poster child of the environmental movement in the 1990s, when concern about its plight prompted an 80 percent reduction of logging on federal lands in the northwestern United States. Environmental organizations have filed several lawsuits in the U.S. and British Columbia in recent years as the bird's numbers continued to plummet. A decade ago, there were 100 pairs of the owls in British Columbia, scientists said.
The seven-member Spotted Owl Population Enhancement Team, created by British Columbia's government last December, included Joseph Buchanan of the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Olympia; Eric Forsman of the U.S. Forest Service and Susan Haig of the U.S. Geological Survey in Corvallis, Ore.; and Tom Cade of The Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho.
The group was instructed not to make recommendations regarding the loss of spotted owl habitat, and environmentalists said stopping logging in important areas is critical to recovering the species.
"If they protect the habitat while they capture and breed the owls, we have no problem," said Devon Page, a Sierra Legal lawyer. "But if they don't, they'll never be able to bring them back into the wild, and this is an extinction plan."