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Seattle Times: "Draft owl plan 'deeply flawed,' panel says"

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April 22, 2008 -- A panel of experts found the Bush administration's plan for assuring the survival of the northern spotted owl was "deeply flawed" in its approach to protecting old-growth-forest habitat from logging and was not entirely based on the best available science.

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A panel of experts found the Bush administration's plan for assuring the survival of the northern spotted owl was "deeply flawed" in its approach to protecting old-growth-forest habitat from logging and was not entirely based on the best available science.

According to the 150-page review, a panel of nine experts assembled by the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute in Portland found the draft spotted-owl-recovery plan underestimates the importance of protecting old-growth-forest habitat compared to the threat from a competing species, the barred owl.

"We view the continued conservation of [old-growth] forests to be paramount for Northern Spotted Owl recovery," the reviewers wrote.

The spotted owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 due primarily to heavy logging in the old-growth forests where it nests and feeds. While old-growth forests suitable for owl habitat have increased, owl numbers have continued to decline, recent research shows.

The spotted owl faces a new threat from a cousin, the barred owl, that has been invading its territory.

In 1994, the federal government came up with the Northwest Forest Plan, which cut logging in Oregon, Washington and Northern California by more than 80 percent while setting up old-growth-forest reserves to protect habitat for the spotted owl and salmon.

The Bush administration has been trying, largely unsuccessfully, to boost logging by changing environmental constraints against logging. The new owl-recovery plan was initiated at the behest of the timber industry.

The review said the draft owl-recovery plan does "not use scientific information appropriately" in some places.

"We identified several areas where we thought their science could be improved," Sustainable Ecosystems vice president Steven Courtney, who led the review, said in a telephone interview. "Some of those areas were relatively important. However, in other areas they did a pretty good job."

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett said the owl plan was one of the most extensively reviewed in the history of the Endangered Species Act, and the points raised in this review and others are being taken into account in the final owl-recovery plan to be issued next month.

"They've identified areas that need more work, and we are committed to doing whatever is necessary to develop the best plan," Fish and Wildlife Pacific Regional Director Ren Lohoefener said in a statement.