VANCOUVER — One of just four endangered spotted owls known to be in the wild in British Columbia is now recovering from an injury after being found along some train tracks, slowing the careful plans to revive the species, a breeding facility co-ordinator said.
The injured bird had been released last August along with two others in forests near the Spuzzum First Nation, about 200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, said Jasmine McCulligh, the facility co-ordinator for the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program.
They believe the owl — named Sitist, which means night in the Spuzzum language — may have collided with a passing train, McCulligh said.
A railway worker noticed the injured bird in October and brought it to the Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society in Delta for treatment.
“He was diagnosed with a wing fracture and a scratched eye,” McCulligh said in an interview. “That owl has since returned to the breeding centre and his potential for release will be re-evaluated as we get closer to the spring and summer.”
She said the other two owls, also males, are “doing really well.”
The three males were released in the same area as a lone female that experts know is in the woods.
Northern spotted owls are a federally endangered species, with habitat loss and competition from the barred owl reducing their wild population.
The injury to Sitist leaves justthree confirmed spotted owls in the wild in B.C.
Protection of spotted owls has fuelled decades-long disputes between environmental groups and the forest industry as their future is often tied to saving old-growth forests where the birds live.
“The spotted owl is an old-growth dependent species, so a single pair of owls requires 30 square kilometres of old-growth forest,” McCulligh said.
When the birds were released last year, the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said it was “a historic milestone,” crediting a partnership between the breeding program and the Spuzzum First Nation.
“The transition from a small group of spotted owls in a distinctly designed breeding facility to a healthy wild population is a long-term process, with an unknown success rate. However, the release of these three birds is a significant step toward an eventual self-sustaining population,” the province said in a statement last year.
The province said it would monitor the released owls, including an assessment of the owls’ ability to breed in the wild, using radio telemetry, GPS tags, visual checks and acoustic recording to track their movements and health.
McCulligh said the breeding program, which is the only one in the world for the species, determines if an owl is fit for release based on a number of factors including genetics and breeding potential, gender, ability to hunt live prey and overall health.
She said for the injured male to be re-released, the program must first determine if his wing healed properly and if he still has “silent flight,” which determines whether his prey will hear him coming.
McCulligh said the ministry is consulting with First Nations, but there is no official timeline for when or if the owl will be returned to the wild.
“We have no concerns of his health here, but we still have to do a thorough evaluation of if he’s actually releasable again.”
She said the breeding program, which started is 2007, is a “long-term project.”
“It could be 50 years until we see a sustainable number in the wild,” McCulligh said. “We would say about 200-250 individuals would be enough to kind of become self-sustaining, but that’s generations (of owls) from now, possibly.”
She said the centre aims to produce 10-20 offspring per year, but it hasn’t yet reached that goal, attributing this to challenges like sex ratio and not having enough breeding-age females.
“That’s something we have to be careful with monitoring the owls, to make sure that we’re pairing them up for the best chance for success,” McCulligh said.
She said other challenges, like what happens to the owls once they are released, remains a concern, referencing the injured owl.
“We can put them in one spot, but who knows where they’re going to end up. There are train tracks everywhere and we can’t control that they don’t go on roads or railroad tracks.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2023.