The Oregonian: "Spotted owl recovery plan recommends preserving old forests"
By Eric Mortenson
A long-anticipated recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, due by Friday, recommends preserving the best of its favored old-forest habitat across federal, state and private property lines and killing barred owls that compete with it for territory.
Those actions can steer spotted owls back from the brink of extinction, the plan says, but it could take 30 years and cost $147 million.
Whether conserving habitat and reducing competitors will save the spotted owl, however, is an unanswerable question.
"We do our best and hope for the best," says Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist considered among the nation's leading experts on spotted owls. "There's a lot we don't have control over."
The owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, touching off the Northwest "timber wars" and clamping down on federal forest harvests. The first recovery plan surfaced in 1992, but disappeared in a flurry of lawsuits and policy rhetoric that has marked the issue ever since.
The new plan is a revision of a 2008 document so marred by political interference that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which wrote it, agreed it was scientifically indefensible and asked a federal judge to send it back.
The revised version has been stalled since 2010 by threats of lawsuits. It applies across the spotted owl's range in Oregon, Washington and Northern California; fish and wildlife's Portland office coordinated the work. The plan does not regulate logging or habitat practices, but agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management must consult the plan as they manage forests.
Initial reaction to the plan is mixed.
Forsman and fellow owl scientist Bob Anthony, a retired fish and wildlife professor at Oregon State University, say success is uncertain because of the barred owl, which migrated from the east and was first documented in the Northwest in the 1970s. It's larger, more aggressive, favors the same habitat and is a less picky eater than the spotted owl.
"Given that the barred owl is part of the equation," Forsman said, "it's no longer clear that protecting habitat is going to do the job."
Controlled removal of barred owls to determine if spotted owls reclaim territory would be a worthwhile experiment, he said, but isn't financially or logistically sustainable.
"The best we can do is manage a considerable amount of habitat for spotted owls and let the chips fall where they may," he said. "It's way too early to give up at this point and say there's nothing we can do for spotted owls."
Anthony said competition between owls makes it crucial to conserve as much suitable habitat as possible. "The key issue is how much habitat can be preserved, and what will be socially and politically acceptable to the residents of the Pacific Northwest," he said.
Others believe the recovery plan is a good step.
"A really excellent effort to incorporate the best science available," said Paula Swedeen, director of ecosystem service programs for the Pacific Forest Trust, which works with forest owners on a variety of sustainability projects. "This plan says there is high-quality habitat everywhere that needs to be preserved to give the owl the best chance possible."
Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, welcomed the plan's increased emphasis on owl protection on private and state forests, which he said have become a "black hole" for the owl.
"Because of heavy cutting, it was putting more protection onus on federal land," he said. "They (non-federal lands) need to do their part," he said.
But he said a better solution is taking old forests "off the chopping block" completely He said the timber industry in Washington and Northern California have "moved on" from dependence on old-growth logs harvested on federal land, but Oregon lags behind.
"Why pick at this scab of logging the old forest?" he asked. Thinning younger forests would provide logs needed by mills, he said.
A spokesman for the Oregon Forest Industries Council said key pieces of the plan are incomplete. "We don't know what's in it, it's very vague," said Ray Wilkeson. "It's like an empty shell."
He said it's unclear how federal officials will use computer modeling to determine the owl's habitat requirements. A modeling tool developed for the recovery plan combines information from 4,000 spotted owl sites and 20 years of demographic data to depict where owls nest and roost now and where they are likely to do so in the future. The model allows researchers to plug in variables such as the presence of barred owls and the impact of climate change.
"We have said that's backwards -- you need that first before you publish a recovery plan," Wilkeson said.
Also missing, and not available until November, is the fish and wildlife service's designation of "critical habitat" throughout the owl's range. Critical habitat includes large, old trees with a high canopy cover.
The timber industry worries the owl recovery plan will impact private land despite assurances from fish and wildlife, Wilkeson said. The vast majority of spotted owl habitat is on federal land, he said, which has had "virtually no management" -- logging -- over the past 15 years. Competition from barred owls and loss of habitat to fire, not logging, appear to be bigger problems, he said.
"We question whether designating more habitat is going to solve the problem," he said.
The recovery plan does not impose regulations on private land, said Paul Henson, supervisor of fish and wildlife's Portland office. Instead, the agency hopes to collaborate with state managers and private timber owners to voluntarily conserve owl habitat in areas where federal land is limited.
Examples include "safe harbor" agreements in which private landowners manage their land to benefit the owl, for example by creating habitat used by the owl's prey and by retaining older trees. In return, they are allowed to manage their land as usual and aren't punished for "incidental take," or harm, to the owl.
The critical habitat designation coming in November won't impact private landowners unless there is a federal connection -- such as a project that involves federal funding or permission, according to the fish and wildlife service.
The plan zeroes in on the need to "conserve high-quality, old-growth habitat no matter where it is," Henson said.
"In terms of solving the dispute over long-term federal land management and whether to cut old-growth trees, I don't think any plan can solve those," he said. "But in terms of advancing the science for spotted owl recovery, it's a significant advances from where I think we were."