The conservation of endangered species in B.C. took a monumental step forward in August 2022 as three spotted owls born and raised in a breeding facility were released into protected habitat in the Fraser Canyon, which was the first release of these rare birds into the wild anywhere in the world.
This historic milestone was the result of a partnership between the provincial Spotted Owl Breeding and Release Program and the Spuzzum First Nation, with the ongoing support of the federal government, conservation organizations and other groups.
“We are doing everything we can to help spotted owls recover in B.C., including running the world’s only spotted owl breeding and release program for this critically endangered species,” said Josie Osborne, Minister of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship. “During my visit to the Langley breeding facility in July, I was incredibly impressed by the deep commitment of everyone involved in helping these rare and beautiful birds achieve a self-sustaining population.”
Prior to the release, there was only one known spotted owl left in the wild in B.C. Today, there are four.
“In 1971, a Spô’zêm matriarch was called upon by our Ancestors to tell the story of our much-loved relatives, the skelúleɁ, otherwise known as the Northern Spotted Owl (as named by the settlers of Canada),” said Chief James Hobart, Spuzzum Nation. “Our messengers are extremely powerful beings: they are the messengers to our spirit world and of our physical world. They are species that are indicative of the health of an environment. Our matriarch Hrome’Tik’Inquakosen’s artistic documentation of skelúleɁ was instrumental in the preservation of our old growths and the work we are continuing with today for SkelúleɁ’s return into the wild.”
The release of the owls was a carefully planned, collaborative, government-to-government process that incorporated Indigenous knowledge and guidance from Spuzzum Nation Chief James Hobart. A detailed assessment of their readiness was necessary to make such an important move, a move that meant the return of Spuzzum’s beloved relatives to their inherent skies.
In early August 2022, the owls were introduced into protected forests in the Anderson Wildlife Habitat Area and the Spuzzum Wildlife Habitat Area in the Fraser Canyon, where the last-known wild spotted owl in B.C. was identified earlier this year, and where their ancestors once thrived. The owls were moved to aviaries in the forest and were fed for several days to allow them to get used to their traditional environment. Eventually, the doors were opened so the owls could leave the cages and hunt on their own.
The development of feeding skills was a precondition of the release, with the owls needing to demonstrate their ability to capture live prey and maintain a stable body weight. Before the owls were released, ministry staff assessed their health, confirmed that there were no active wildfires in the release area and collaborated with Spuzzum Nation Chief James Hobart to ensure there were no competing barred owls in the area.
The Province has worked with First Nations in B.C. to protect more than 280,000 hectares of spotted owl habitat in the Cascade region under the Spotted Owl Management Plan, which is enough territory to support a population of 250 owls.
A comprehensive monitoring plan is in place to help the Province and Spuzzum Nation assess the released owls’ ability to become established and successfully breed in the wild. The release plan was designed and implemented as a collaborative initiative that may set the precedent for other releases. The birds are monitored regularly using radio telemetry, GPS tags and visual checks, as well as acoustic recording to track their movements and health.
Ministry staff are prepared to help the owls, including supplemental feeding, if needed. So far, the owls have successfully captured their own prey. Spuzzum Nation land guardians and members also provided support with their knowledge of the health and well-being of the land.
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 in B.C.
The objective is to expand the program with a long-term goal of releasing as many as 20 spotted owls each year. This outcome will depend on the continued success of both the breeding program and how the returned owls continue to transition in the wild.
Note: Due to the need to safeguard these three owls from any outside disturbance during this crucial transition period, members of the media will not be allowed to access the release site. However, a short video about the Spotted Owl Breeding and Release Program is available online: https://youtu.be/yCS83NYNM4E
Hromtik’en Kwakosen, Chief James Hobart, Spô’zêm First Nation, Nlaka’pamux Territory –
“What I was most proud of is that we're not sitting here doing nothing, we're doing something. If we make a mistake, we are making a mistake falling forward. I am most excited about hearing back a year from now, or even two months from now, the sounds our SkelúleɁ’s calling in their own woods and realizing they have found their way home, have found themselves. Our sky relatives knew our songs, our drums, our traditions. Their ancestral spirits will remember Spô’zêm peoples as their land stewards. That is what will excite me. When that next step happens, it will be truly beautiful.”
Chief Marilyn Gabriel, Kwantlen First Nation —
“Kwantlen First Nation is grateful for the important efforts underway in our territory to protect the sacred spotted owl through the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program. We value our growing relationship and involvement with this program. It is our honour to support the Spuzzum First Nation in their work with the breeding program and recent co-managed release of their important relations with Skalula, the northern spotted owl, in their territory. We congratulate and hold our hands up to Chief Hobart and the Spuzzum leadership for prioritizing their Skalula in their territory and honour our Nation-to-Nation connection through the breeding program.”
Steven Guilbeault, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change –
“Environment and Climate Change Canada is proud to support the important conservation work that British Columbia and Spuzzum First Nation are undertaking for spotted owls. Without this one-of-kind breeding facility and its hardworking team, the recovery of the species would not be possible. The successful release of these owls into the wild is an important symbol of how we can collaborate to reverse biodiversity and habitat loss. Canada will continue to collaborate with British Columbia and other First Nations to support the recovery of Spotted Owls and other old growth dependent species.”
Jasmine McCulligh, facility co-ordinator for the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program –
“The Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program is the only facility in the world that is breeding this species. Seeing the three owls released into the wild has truly been a ‘full circle’ moment for the team. Witnessing the owls’ first heartbeats, caring for them as they grew from tiny embryos into adults, and watching them fly freely in the forest has been an incredibly rewarding experience.”
- The spotted owl (caurina subspecies) was listed as an endangered animal in 1986 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and listed as “Endangered” under Schedule 1 of the federal Species at Risk Act when that act came into force in 2003.
- The spotted owl is also “red-listed” by the B.C. Conservation Data Centre, which means it is considered to be most at risk of becoming extirpated (i.e., no longer present in a specified area) or becoming extinct. It is also listed as a species at risk under the provincial Forest and Range Practices Act and the Oil and Gas Activities Act.
- Following the release of the three owls, 30 spotted owls remain in the spotted owl breeding facility.
- The provincial Breeding and Release Program has received in-kind support or financial contributions from the following: Mountain View Conservation Society; Spuzzum First Nation; British Columbia Conservation Foundation; Grouse Mountain Refuge for Endangered Wildlife; Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program; and Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Northern Spotted Owl Recovery and Breeding Program:
Spuzzum First Nation: https://www.spuzzumnation.com/