Spotted owl populations drop 50% while protected habitat shrinks

Can the northern spotted owl survive? That's the question as the endangered bird's numbers continue to plummet. Populations have dropped nearly 50% in some areas, and continue to fall at a rate of 4% per year, according to researchers.

But meanwhile, the Bush Administration persists in doing what it can to reduce the amount of land this endangered species can call its own. In a move favorable to the logging industry, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday announced that it would cut the owl's protected habitat by 1.6 million acres -- a total of 23%.

Loss of habitat has been cited as the main reason for the owl's decline. The owl prefers old-growth forests, which are rapidly disappearing. And as the bird's habitats and populations shrink, so does its genetic diversity. In fact, the species now faces a "population bottleneck" that "can increase inbreeding depression and decrease adaptive potential," according to a study released just last month by the U.S. Geological Survey. The study concludes that the owl now faces an increased chance of extinction as a result of this loss in genetic diversity.

It's worth pointing out that the northern spotted owl also faces threats from larger, invasive barred owls, which have overrun much of its territory. But where did the barred owls come from? The more versatile barred owl can adapt to a greater range of habitats, and is likely moving in from lands where its pervious nesting sites have been cut down.

Environmental groups are already promising to take this decision to court, which means that this story is far from over. But decades of lawsuits haven't rescued the northern spotted owl yet; what we really need is a government that actually cares about saving them.

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