One of the only four endangered spotted owls known to be in the wild in British Columbia is now being treated for an injury after being found along some railroad tracks, according to the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program’s facility coordinator. The owl, named Sitist, which means night in the Spuzzum language, is believed to have collided with a passing train. A railway worker spotted the injured bird in October and brought it to the Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society in Delta for treatment. It was diagnosed with a wing fracture and a scratched eye. The owl has since returned to the breeding centre and its potential for release will be re-evaluated as spring and summer approach. The other two males released in the same area are doing well, and there is a lone female known to be in the woods.
Northern spotted owls are a federally endangered species, with habitat loss and competition from the barred owl reducing their wild population. With the injury to Sitist, there are now only three confirmed spotted owls in the wild in B.C. Protection of spotted owls has been a long-standing dispute between environmental groups and the forestry industry, as their future is closely linked to saving old-growth forests where the birds live. A single pair of owls requires 30 square kilometres of old-growth forest.
When the birds were released last year, the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship called it “a historic milestone”, thanking the partnership between the breeding program and the Spuzzum First Nation. The ministry will monitor the released owls, including an assessment of their ability to breed in the wild, using radio telemetry, GPS tags, visual checks and acoustic recording to track their movements and health.
The breeding program 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. 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 if his prey will hear him coming.
The province is consulting with First Nations, but there is no official timeline for when or if the owl will be returned to the wild. The breeding program, which started in 2007, is a “long-term project”. It could be 50 years until a sustainable number of spotted owls is in the wild, possibly. The centre aims to produce 10-20 offspring per year, but it hasn’t yet reached that goal, due to challenges like sex ratio and not having enough breeding-age females. Other challenges, like what happens to the owls once they are released, remain a concern.