24 April 2002
I wish I could say that things have changed, that 2002 was a banner year for boreal owls and that they are being found in areas where I have never found them before. I wish I could say they are adapting to the changing forest and finding new cavity trees next to the green spruce forests that stay wet and cool during the heat of a Minnesota summer.
I will no longer mince words when addressing the status of boreal owls in Minnesota's managed forests. They are a species in decline. Their cavity trees ripen and blow down or are harvested, leaving very few options for an obligate cavity nester. And while their cousin the northern saw-whet owl appears highly adaptable, the boreal owl does not exhibit the same flexibility. They are rigid in their habitat requirements and therefore, their distribution; forever tied to the mix of lowlands and uplands that are present here, but increasingly isolated and imperiled.
More and more it appears the saw-whets are winning, if for no other reason than their numbers. In the late 80's, boreal owls were the most common species I encountered during my surveys, outnumbering both barred and saw-whet owls. Now however, the table has turned, with saw-whets outnumbering boreals by a greater than 2:1 margin. Each spring the saw-whets flood into the area, the males sing, and females are nest bound. They find cavities in uplands, they find cavities in lowlands and they use them. If they ever make the evolutionary jump to "egg dumping", they will rule the night.
Management directions are always a concern, because ultimately, how the agencies decide to manage the forest will have the greatest impact on the areas' flora and fauna. The Forest Service is addressing the issue and has included the boreal owl on its Sensitive Species list. That listing in its own right has halted several timber sales and has caused a "rethinking" of management issues. Theirs are but baby steps and progress is slow, but their steps are in the right direction.
The Minnesota DNR, on the other hand, continues its vacillation. Several years ago, I was informed by a "high ranking" Department employee that "they" had decided to list the boreal owl as a Species of Special Concern. It made sense.
Several weeks later, however, that same individual called me again to tell me that the Agency decided not to list the owl. No explanation was given, but for the first and certainly not the last time, my passion had been derailed by politics. Eventually, I was asked by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy if I would be willing to testify in court actions they were taking against the timber industry and the DNR for the sudden "unlisting" of the boreal owl. To make a long story short, the boreal owl was unprotected behind closed doors and today is just another avi-fauna species to the State. Even the Department's web page dedicated to the boreal owl describes the song of the saw-whet as that of the boreal owl, and myopically suggests that northeast Minnesota is the only place in the state where the boreal owl breeds. Perhaps then, it is time to look elsewhere, to other parts of Minnesota's boreal forest where ears have not been enlisted in the search.
With my field season cathartically ending, my concerns outweigh my accomplishments. I have to work harder and travel further each year to find boreal owls, and have less to show for my efforts. Perhaps it was a visceral awareness that the species was in trouble that caused me to divert my attention to the North Woods aura and uncover my new passion: the night. Yet, I will continue to come back here and document the localized extirpation of the owl and fawn for those nights when the owls sang and I answered their songs.
© W.H. Lane