Nesting endangered owls could lead to suspension of old-growth logging near Port Renfrew

Sightings of the endangered western screech owl could bring about the temporary suspension of logging activities in the Fairy Creek watershed.

A retired biologist documented sightings of the owls in the area on six occasions between April 5 and May 21, 2021. The birds were spotted in a number of areas where old-growth activists have been blocking access for forestry company Teal Jones since the summer of 2020.

“Its an incredible finding considering it's a threatened species,” said Sierra Club BC coastal projects lead Mark Worthing. “Its just so impressive that people out there are hearing them, recording them and catching glimpses of them from time to time.”

Worthing says the western screech owl is an understudied species and because they are threatened there are researchers who want study the owl’s habitat needs. The number of the endangered owls is estimated to be between 750 and 1,500 breeding pairs, but it is unknown how many may be in the Fairy Creek area.

“It's very exciting to hear that they are there and it makes Pacheedaht and Ditidaht that much more special,” said Worthing. “Its also that much more shocking that logging company Teal Jones is looking to destroy threatened species habitat imminently.”

Environmental groups, like the Sierra Club BC, say under the BC Wildlife Act it is an offence for anyone to harm, molest or destroy a nest that is occupied by a bird or egg.

According to the groups, Teal Jones was notified that in order to comply with the act, it was recommended that the company delay the harvest until after the western screech owl nesting season is over towards the end of the summer.

“This is active breeding season and that’s one of the reasons why people are going to extreme measures for the old-growth forest because they are logging in a threatened species habitat,” said Worthing. “This is an extremely endangered species and their habitat is being degraded and fractured in the entire extent of their range.”

Worthing says what environmental groups are asking for is for Teal Jones to suspend its logging operations near Port Renfrew until researchers can collect data on the endangered owls. Teal Jones says it will not be engaging in activities near where any owls have been identified until the area is assessed and a management plan is completed.

In an emailed statement to CTV News, the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said the sightings reported are credible.

According to the province, ministry staff will be going to the area in the next few days to attempt to locate nest sites. The statement also confirms that Teal Jones has hired a wildlife professional to help identify the nesting sites.

“The buck really stops with (the province) on this one because breaking the federal wildlife act and possibly some litigation (could occur),” said Worthing. “Either the provincial government needs to intervene immediately and defer all logging in this area until proper analysis is done by independent researchers or Teal Jones could take the moral high ground because they say they are doing things in the right way.”

BC RCMP have arrested more than 140 forest activists while enforcing an injunction that was granted to Teal Jones by the B.C. Supreme Court in April 2021. The forestry company has been unable to harvest logs in the Port Renfrew area due to blockades that have been in place since the summer of 2020.

A representative from the Surrey-based forestry company told CTV News that the ongoing protests are taking a toll on the company and its employees.

“It's getting a little bit out if control and I think enough is enough,” said Teal Jones log purchaser Jack Gardiner. “These guys are targeting our company directly and we do things the right way, we engage with local First Nations, we log carefully and moderately, and we operate well within government regulations. We do a lot of local added manufacturing.”

In the statement to CTV News, the province says finding the western screech owl nesting sites is difficult because it is unable to “call playback” because it may disturb nesting bird. According to the ministry, the best management practices are to delay any harvesting within approximately 500 metres of a nesting site. It says it may delay other activities that may cause a disturbance to nesting birds, such as processing, hauling, loading and helicopter use.

“I imagine things like heavy machinery and helicopters would need to be extracted from the area,” said Worthing. “Then proper studies would need to be done to find the population and make sure there is enough suitable habitat for that population to remain.”