Northern spotted owl's decline revives old concerns
Habitat for the famous owl is again a hot issue, as the US seeks to set aside less old-growth forest.
(Page 2 of 2)
The latest recovery proposal tries to incorporate new information about where spotted owls prefer to live (which is not always old-growth forests) and threats other than loss of habitat to logging, such as diseased trees, wildfires, and deadly competition from the barred owl.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"We've had years of intensive scientific study on the northern spotted owl, so we've learned a lot more about it, a lot more about the habitat it needs," says Phil Carroll, spokesman for the FWS's Oregon field office in Portland. For example, he says, in some parts of its range, it's not quite as dependent on big blocks of old growth as we had thought before."
That's how the FWS explains a recent proposal to reduce critical habitat from 6.9 million acres to 5.3 million acres.
Timber industry officials say this is a good first step. They also applaud new elements in the proposed plan: emphasizing that the barred owl, not habitat loss from logging, is the prime threat to the spotted owl, and giving local and regional US Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management officials more say about where habitat should be protected.
"We truly believe that the debate and the needs of the owl have significantly changed from when it was listed," says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry trade group in Portland, Ore.
"It was presumed originally that it was old-growth dependent and that it needed large undisturbed tracts of that habitat," says Mr. West. "When we finally got the technology to put these little dinky radios glued to their tail feathers instead of these backpacks that were causing them to have issues with mating and surviving, we found that they were using a variety of habitat."
"Whatever we do in developing a recovery plan and identifying critical habitat," he adds, "needs to have flexibility for the land managers and the biologists so that they can deal with where the owls are on the ground today to make sure what they do helps recover this species."
Many doubt that less is more
To wildlife activists and many scientists, that sounds like a step toward allowing more logging when the need may be for additional protected habitat to prevent extinction.
"This plan misses the mark in many respects, and it needs to be redone," Dr. DellaSala writes in his critique of the proposed recovery options. "Implementation of the plan is likely to increase extinction risks for the owl."
DellaSala, who was on the team developing a recovery plan, recently told Congress that "what was supposed to be a science-based plan was derailed by a pattern of political interference" by political appointees in the Bush administration.
"The unfortunate part of this thing is that this administration has chosen to reignite the timber wars, and the next administration that comes in is going to be inheriting a train wreck," he says in an interview. "In a nutshell, this is the key domino for toppling the protections in the Northwest Forest Plan, the old-growth protections."
At this point, the FWS figures the owl's recovery can be achieved in 30 years at a cost of nearly $200 million.
As for the barred owl, says FWS's Mr. Carroll, "the problem is significantly bigger than we had assumed."
But the prospect of killing this bigger invader "is not something we do lightly because they're still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and it takes a permit to kill one," he says. "Anything that's done will be done very carefully and very slowly and with a lot of scientific study."