Best-laid plans can't foresee all - Spotted owl is in decline and another bird may be at fault
Thursday, May 5, 2005
By LISA STIFFLER
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
CLE ELUM -- Lorin Hicks scans a lush expanse of Plum Creek Timber Co. forestland, pointing out the towering firs and pines shading fish-friendly streams.
The company biologist notes the shrubs popping up on unused logging roads -- slowly returning to a natural state. And the pristine land -- important to endangered species -- that has been sold to local conservation groups.
For nearly a decade, the Seattle-based timber company has been operating under a habitat conservation plan covering 125,000 acres in Washington's central Cascades.
"It's been a tremendous plan," Hicks said. "I'd call it a success."
And yet one of the key species the plan was supposed to protect -- the spotted owl -- is vanishing.
There were 102 spotted owls living in Plum Creek's woods here in 1992. There were 92 in 1996, the year the habitat plan was approved. In 2001, only 48 could be found. Today, experts believe even fewer survive.
The agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service calls for protecting the owl and 300 other species. A handful are listed under the Endangered Species Act, including bull trout, salmon, grizzly bears, Canada lynx and a small seabird called the marbled murrelet.
When Plum Creek won approval of its 50-year plan, federal officials hailed it as the nation's "most innovative and sophisticated" blueprint for stewarding sensitive private lands.
Before the deal was struck, the company compiled more than a decade's worth of information about the owls and their needs.
But the resulting plan illustrates a key shortcoming of the federalprogram.
Even plans that are well-informed at the outset can be beset by problems later on. In many cases, there are no requirements or clear path for altering the plans to bolster safeguards when a species takes a turn for the worse.
In this case, the villain appears to be another bird. The demise of the spotted owls initially was pinned on logging of old-growth forests, where the birds live. But then non-native barred owls -- larger and more aggressive -- swooped in, effectively evicting their feathered cousins and devouring their food supply.
The habitat plan doesn't call for any action against the invading bird, which originally nested in the American Southeast. It hardly mentions them at all.
"There wasn't a whole lot of discussion about barred owls," said the Sierra Club's Charlie Raines, a longtime forest watchdog. "If we're so great, how come we didn't predict that barred owls were going to be such a problem?"
The company developed the plan, Hicks said, because it addresses environmental issues and sets logging rules for a half-century, which makes long-term planning easier.
Under the plan, the company logged 900 acres last year, cutting enough trees to build 500 average-sized homes.
The number of acres of older forests in the area is allowed to decrease through logging until 2020, when some of the woods on Plum Creek and neighboring Forest Service lands reach maturity.
Environmentalists oppose logging what little old forestland is left.
That's not the biggest problem for the spotted owl, Hicks said. "We could quit cutting old growth," but "eventually the barred owls tend to take over."
Bill Vogel, a Fish and Wildlife biologist who worked on the plan, agrees. Controlling barred owls through hunting isn't being discussed, he said, because it is politically unfeasible and likely ineffective.
Researchers are still studying the invaders and trying to figure out how best to control them. It's not just a Plum Creek problem. The spotted owl population is down across Washington, including in Olympic National Park and in forests where little logging is occurring.
"We don't have a smoking gun," said Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington forest expert. "But the barred owl would appear to be the most important single issue.
"The old rule where if you protect the habitat, you've done the job, might not be true anymore."
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