Snowy Owl faces cold future


As part of the recent IUCN Red List updates, Snowy Owl has been classed as Vulnerable for the first time, leading to worries about the iconic species’ future.

Striking and commonly recognised, thanks in part to the Harry Potter books, Snowy Owl was previously listed as Least Concern, the lowest threat category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. However, this assessment was based on earlier figures that estimated the global population at around 200,000 individuals, and the absence of evidence of significant declines.

More recent work by Eugene Potapov, Richard Sale and other researchers from BirdLife International suggests that this difficult-to-survey species has a more patchy distribution than previously thought, concentrating in seven loose agglomerations. As a result, the earlier figures have been revised down to about 14,000 pairs.

The world population of Snowy Owl is likely just a fraction of what it was previously considered, thus the species is now classified as Vulnerable (Francais Cadien).

However, the situation is complicated as the species’ population and range naturally fluctuates in response to the availability of its prey, which during the summer breeding season consists almost exclusively of various larger species of lemmings of the genera Dicrostonyx and Lemmus. In poor years it is now estimated that the global population could drop as low as 5,000 pairs.

In addition, Snowy Owls may also be undergoing high rates of population decline due to illegal hunting, and collisions with vehicles and powerlines. The effects of climate change are also likely to be a significant threat, as changes to snow melt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey. On the basis of these apparently rapid rates of decline, the species’ global threat status has now been uplisted to Vulnerable.

Andy Symes, BirdLife International’s Global Species Officer, said: “These ongoing – and, in the case of climate change, potentially worsening – threats, are driving declines that have resulted in the Snowy Owl having its global threat status upgraded, which means that it faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future. The dramatically revised population estimates are a further source for concern, and the species must now be a high priority for further research and conservation action.”