Twenty-five years ago…
It was a cool June evening in 1985 when I first saw a Spotted Owl. I was worried about the weather at first as we drove north and east through steady rain from Vancouver into the heart of the Coast Mountains. But the rain turned to showers at Whistler and eventually stopped altogether as the road turned south and tucked behind the first range of high peaks. My friends and I set up camp on the gravelly shores of Lillooet Lake and had supper while we waited for dusk. The clouds thinned and broke as the evening wore on, and the south wind dropped to a light breeze. Perfect for owling.
Lillooet Lake is long and narrow, its valley carved millennia ago by a river of ice. The dark green valley walls rise almost vertically to the mountaintops above, hidden on this evening by lingering mist. We had to imagine the glittering ice fields that still clung to those peaks, remnants of the glaciers that had once filled the valley. The caroling of robins and the spiraling songs of Swainson’s thrushes echoed off the cliffs above. By 9:30PM the mountains were black against the orange-grey clouds, and it was time to go.
We drove down the gravel logging road, watching the kilometre posts go by until we saw the one we were looking for. I got out of the car, put my tape recorder on the hood, and pressed play. The stillness of the evening was broken by a loud, high, barking Hoo hoo-hoo Hoooo!
I had heard this recording many times over the previous year as we searched for Spotted Owls throughout southwestern British Columbia. Alarmed by reports in the late 1970s and early 1980s that Spotted Owls were declining in Washington and Oregon, biologists had organized surveys for the species in British Columbia. We had very little idea of the status of the species in British Columbia, for like all owls, the Spotted Owl had never been properly surveyed. So other birders and I combed likely sites in the southwestern corner of the province, listening in the dark for some response to those recorded hoots.
Over the past few months, I had seen some wonderful patches of old forest—towering cedars, lichen-draped hemlocks and massive Douglas-firs—but I had yet to hear an answer to my tape recorder. Then a friend reported a response during a survey along the shores of Lillooet Lake, and we had come to verify it. As the tape played, I looked at the darkening forest above me. It wasn’t quite the forest type I had thought Spotted Owls would choose as a home. A steep talus slope, its boulders covered in silver-green moss, rose up from the roadside. Ancient Douglas-firs clung to the rocks, forming ribbon-like groves at intervals along the mountainside. Suddenly a high yelp answered from the trees, followed by the hoo-hoo hoooo that completed the typical call. We had all heard it and grinned at each other in silent satisfaction. There was at least one Spotted Owl in Canada.
The Spotted Owl was listed as Endangered in Canada in 1986, prompting years of intensive surveys and recovery planning, mostly concerned with calculating how much harvest of old-growth forests could continue to take place while still allowing for a slight possibility of Spotted Owl survival. The Canadian population was estimated to have been about 500 pairs before European settlement, and had declined to less than 100 pairs by 1991. However, all this action around the Spotted Owl has resulted in an astonishing amount of inaction in conserving both the owl and the old forest ecosystem it has come to symbolize. By 2009 there were only 17 birds left, and a recent status report predicted that the species will have vanished from Canada by 2012.
Today I drove from Penticton to Vancouver, taking the scenic route all the way. Usually I go over Allison Pass in the north Cascades to get to the coast, but my son Russell had to get to Lillooet for work, so we drove together through the Nicola Valley, down Highway 8 along the Nicola River, then through the spectacular Thompson Canyon from Spences Bridge to Lytton. There we turned north along the ponderosa pine and sagebrush benches of the northern Fraser Canyon to the little town of Lillooet. Russell was meeting colleagues there to helicopter in to a remote spot in the Coast Range to monitor one of the last three pairs of Spotted Owls in Canada.
I said goodbye to Russell and his friends at the helicopter base, wishing I could fly in with them for one last chance to see the owls. I turned west and drove up Cayoosh Creek to Duffey Lake, following the shortest route from Lillooet to Vancouver. My thoughts turned to the fate of the Spotted Owl in Canada, and the fact that the British Columbia forest industry that has all but killed the owl is now on life support as well. The tragedy of short-term planning is often too painful to contemplate.
It was only then that I realized there was some symmetry to today’s drive. The Duffey Lake road eventually winds down through lichen-draped hemlocks to the green waters of Lillooet Lake, where I had seen the owl so long ago. As I drove down the last switchbacks to the lake, the car stereo began belting out “Summer Wages”, Ian Tyson’s great anthem of regret, loss and wasted opportunity set in the rainforests of British Columbia. The lyrics seem hauntingly appropriate to my despairing train of thought:
“…In all the beer parlors down along Main Street
The dreams of the seasons get spilled down on the floor
All the big stands of timber just waiting for falling
And the hookers standing watchfully, waiting by the door …
…Years are gambled and lost like summer wages.”
Postscript: Russell did find a pair of Spotted Owls during his field work; you can read his account (and see a short video) on his blog at http://bcbigyear.blogspot.com/.
Here’s a recent article from the Vancouver Sun about Spotted Owl management in BC,