Nearly 50 years ago, an OSU student pioneered northern spotted owl research in the Pacific Northwest
Eric Forsman’s undergraduate research at Oregon State University was interrupted by a two-year stint in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Soon after he was honorably discharged in 1972, Forsman was back at a project that he started in the late 1960s.
“Within a week I was out in the woods chasing spotted owls,” Forsman says.
You read that right. Those spotted owls. Northern spotted owls.
A generation before the northern spotted owl’s famous listing on the U.S. Endangered Species Act—and subsequent status as a symbol of wildlife conservation in America—Forsman was hiking around in the Oregon woods looking for the bird. He was the first person to complete a comprehensive study of the owl.
Both his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation at OSU centered on the northern spotted owl in Oregon. At the time, it was known among wildlife biologists that the owl’s population was decreasing in the Pacific Northwest.
Did he anticipate the national and international coverage of the owl’s ESA listing and the controversy surrounding its perceived impact on the Northwest timber industry?
“Well, no,” says Forsman, sitting in a quiet office (not his) in the Pacific Northwest Research Station’s Forestry Sciences Laboratory, a sprawling complex adjacent to the OSU campus in Corvallis.
When Forsman enrolled at OSU in 1968, he became interested in the fact that there were more unknowns than knowns involving the northern spotted owl. There had only been about two dozen records of spotted owls in Oregon, and most of those were specimens that had been shot.
“Nobody had even found a nest,” he says.
He eventually made his way into the office of Howard Wight, a longtime professor of wildlife management in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU. Wight was interested in research involving forest birds and took him on as a graduate student, Forsman said.
“At the time, we both were interested in forest management and its effect on native species,” he says, “but our understanding was pretty limited in those years. We all thought it was an important issue, but I don’t think any of us had the foggiest idea that it would come to dominate the discussion of forest management in the Pacific Northwest.”
For his graduate work, Forsman set out to determine what the owls ate, what forest types they used for nesting, and their distribution in Oregon. He spent almost four years conducting surveys.
“Once I got involved in the spotted owl research, it wouldn’t let me go. There was so much interest,” he says.
Spotted owls make their home in the cavities of old-growth timber, nesting in broken-topped trees at heights far above the forest floor.
Spotted owls make their home in the cavities of old-growth timber, nesting in broken-topped trees at heights far above the forest floor. Forsman and Wight found that the owls were having a difficult time adapting to habitat disturbance, which was primarily due to harvesting of their preferred habitat. They are also highly specialized predators, feeding on small mammals that live in the forest canopy, such as red tree voles, flying squirrels, and woodrats. The birds are experts at ambushing their prey by gliding down silently from high up in the trees. Each nesting pair needs a large amount of land for hunting and nesting.
In a 1974 article in Oregon’s Agricultural Progress, Forsman predicted “old-growth timber probably will be gone in the northern Coast Range within the next 10 to 15 years and will disappear in the southern portion of the Coast Range not too far after that.” At the time, he assumed that logging would continue with no restrictions to protect species such as owls and tree voles. He had no idea that the controversy over the owl and other species that occupy old forests would result in protection of large areas of old forest within the range of the northern spotted owl.
Forsman uses the example of the Siuslaw National Forest in western Oregon, which at the time had a target to convert about 95 percent of the forest to managed forest and save about 5 percent as wilderness or roadless areas.
The passion of Forsman and Wight for the spotted owl spread up and down the West Coast. By the early 1970s, Gordon Gould with the California Department of Fish and Game began surveying the owls in the northern part of the state. Wildlife biologists in Washington state followed with their own surveys a few years later.
“Then it just exploded,” Forsman says. “A lot of people got interested.”
Based on its rapidly declining numbers, the owl was considered for ESA listing for several years. It was finally listed in 1990, despite long and vigorous opposition from the forest products industry.
“Given the stakes, no matter how much we learned, there was always somebody arguing that we didn’t have enough data,” Forsman said. “From that perspective, it’s not that surprising that it took a long time.”
With the stroke of a pen, logging was severely reduced throughout the owl’s habitat. In the face of massive job losses, bumper stickers reading “Kill a Spotted Owl—Save a Logger” and “I Like Spotted Owls—Fried” appeared in support of the loggers. The issue hit Forsman personally. He grew up in Eugene and has several brothers who worked in the forest products industry. Family gatherings were interesting.
“My brothers always treated me with respect unless I said something stupid,” he says.
After receiving his three degrees from OSU, Forsman worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a research wildlife biologist for 28 years. He retired three years ago, but he still has a desk in the Forestry Sciences Laboratory and a courtesy faculty appointment with OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He continues to serve on thesis and dissertation committees for graduate students in the College of Agricultural Sciences and College of Forestry.
“Eric’s research on northern spotted owls laid the foundation for what we know about the species’ general ecology, initial population declines and subsequent species’ ESA listing,” says Katie Dugger, an associate professor in OSU’s fisheries and wildlife department and assistant unit leader for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
“His integrity, objectivity, and strong commitment to our natural resources, including the northern spotted owl, has served as an example to me in my own career.”