California’s timber industry was sacrificed for the spotted owl. Now pot farms pose a new threat

The economy in rural Northern California was crippled in the 1990s when a federal judge shut down logging in old growth forests to protect the northern spotted owl.

Now, researchers worry that the underground marijuana industry that sprang up in timber country after the collapse is contributing to the owl’s ongoing demise.

A study released Thursday by UC Davis with the California Academy of Sciences says an alarming number of spotted owls are being found dead with illegal rodent poison in their systems – poison that researchers say is being set out by clandestine marijuana growers protecting their lucrative crop from rats and other pests. The owls eat the rodents poisoned by the powerful toxin that causes massive internal bleeding.

The study published in the journal “Avian Conservation and Ecology,” says that 7 of 10 dead northern spotted owls found at various sites in coastal Northern California counties between 2009 and 2013 tested positive for rat poison. The owls were found in Humboldt, Mendocino and Del Norte counties – a sparsely populated region encompassing much of what’s known as the “Emerald Triangle,” where pot growing is a booming industry.

The problem, according to the researchers, is that most of the grow sites are operating without a permit on private timber lands and have little oversight from state and federal regulators. In Humboldt County alone, the researchers estimate there are between 4,500 and 15,000 private cultivation sites, almost all of which are operating without any rules.

“If only a fraction of those have rodenticide, that’s still thousands of potential ... exposure points that are available for northern spotted owls to pick up (the poison),” said Mourad Gabriel, a researcher with the UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center. “That’s only in our study area. We’re not even talking about the prolific growth of marijuana ... cultivation sites throughout the state of California.”

He said state regulators are “playing catch-up” to address the industry, and there’s still a long way to go to get a grip on the problem. The number of grow sites is expected to expand following the passage of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana this year.

This isn’t the first time Gabriel has sounded alarms about rodent poison contaminating the environment from illegal pot farms.

Gabriel’s studies in 2012, 2013 and 2015 linked the deaths of fishers, a weasel-like mammal, to them ingesting rat poison at clandestine grows. The federal government in 2016 rejected petitions to protect the Pacific fisher as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A population of fishers has been declared threatened under state law.

State research also shows that 97 percent of mountain lions sampled in California also have traces of rodent poisons in their systems, though it’s not clear pot farming is directly to blame. There wasn’t enough poison in the cougars’ systems to kill the animals outright, but researchers say it a troubling sign of the amount of rodent poison present in the environment. The owls also didn’t die directly from the poison, but it could have weakened them and contributed to their deaths, researchers said.

Most of the rat poison is being spread at “trespass cultivation” sites, which are very different than legal cannabis grows where farmers follow the rules and don’t want to pollute the environment, said Kristin Nevedal, the Humboldt County-based chairwoman of the International Cannabis Farmers Association.

In the end, one of the surest ways to ensure the poisoning of wildlife stops is for cannabis consumers to know where their marijuana comes from and only buy from responsible growers, Nevedal said.

“They should be thinking, I think, about what the environmental impact is of the cannabis they are choosing to consume, both in the regulated and the non-regulated marketplace,” she said.

The fate of the spotted owl, designated as “threatened” under the state and federal endangered species acts, became one of the defining environmental and socioeconomic issues of the 1990s after a court ruling put millions of acres off-limits to logging in California, Oregon and Washington.

The Clinton administration allowed a resumption of logging in 1993, but on a greatly reduced scale, and the industry never really recovered.

Wildlife officials don’t know exactly how many spotted owls there are across their range, but their population size at California study areas has declined by at least 31 percent since the 1990s – and these declines are accelerating, according to state wildlife officials.

A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said timber harvests in Northern California fell 60 percent during the 1990s. Paul F. Ehinger & Associates, an Oregon industry consultant, said 400 mills closed in the West, including 85 in California.

All told, California’s logging industry has shrunk from a total of 5,200 jobs in 1990 to 1,800 in 2016, according to data from the state Employment Development Department.

In parts of Northern California, memories of the fight over the spotted owl still run hot. Longtime residents of Tehama County remember the days “when we had so many mills and the economy was robust,” said the county’s economic development director Caylyn Wright. “It’s still an issue people are upset about, but the county is working very hard to diversify the economy and figure out what is next.” A Wal-Mart distribution center has replaced timber as Tehama’s single largest employer, she said.

In Humboldt County, where economic diversification has gained more traction, passions have cooled. “You don’t see big marches with spotted owls in effigy anymore,” said Gregg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Regional Economic Development Commission in Humboldt County.

Humboldt’s unemployment rate was a miniscule 3.4 percent in November, the latest data available, although Foster said that was due in part to a gradual shrinkage of the labor pool. Although timber “is still part of the economic landscape,” he said new industries are reshaping Humboldt’s industrial base.

One of those industries, of course, is cannabis, which has pumped a lot of new money into the economy, he said.

As for the reports of rat poison and spotted owls, he said, “We’ve replaced one environmental issue with another one.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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