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Details scant on federal plan for spotted owl

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The News Tribune, August 10th, 2005; The shy northern spotted owl – last decade’s symbol of the Pacific Northwest logging wars – once again finds itself at the center of the dispute.

August 10th, 2005 06:46 AM (PDT)

SUSAN GORDON; The News Tribune

The shy northern spotted owl – last decade’s symbol of the Pacific Northwest logging wars – once again finds itself at the center of the dispute.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has agreed to develop a recovery plan for the rare bird, which has been listed as threatened with extinction since 1990.

It’s too early to say whether it would further restrict logging in forests where the owl lives.

“We are in the very early stages of developing a process for doing this,” said Joan Jewett, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokeswoman in Portland.

The move comes about nine months after the service reaffirmed its decision to extend Endangered Species Act protection to the creature. And it’s been more than a year since a demographic study showed steep drops in Washington’s owl population.

The law requires federal officials to figure out ways to revive listed species and define habitat critical to their survival.

The promise of an official recovery plan is part of a modified settlement of a timber industry lawsuit filed against the federal government nearly three years ago.

According to an agreement approved July 28 by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Ore., the Fish & Wildlife Service will prepare an owl plan before the end of 2007.

At the same time, the service promised to review previously designated owl habitat. While the species act prohibits the destruction of nesting areas regardless of who owns them, the only forests officially recognized by the service as owl habitat are federal.

Whether an official owl recovery plan would change that and whether it would benefit the owl is unclear. “I just don’t have a clue,” said Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service biologist in Corvallis, Ore., who is the region’s leading spotted owl expert.

In all, 11,432 banded owls were monitored by researchers who collaborated in the population study. But no one knows how many spotted owls still inhabit the bird’s historic range, which extends from Washington to northern California.

Jewett said an interagency group of scientists probably would be drafted to prepare the recovery plan.

Among other things, the Endangered Species Act requires authorities to set a revival goal, she said. An owl recovery plan “makes a lot of sense” said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland-based group of timber and forest products companies that filed the lawsuit.

Disappearing habitat isn’t the only threat to the owl, he said. Scientists have suggested that forest fires, the West Nile virus and competition from the more aggressive and adaptable barred owl – a non-native species – all dim prospects for the future of the spotted owl.

Federal wildlife officials said earlier this summer that they plan to shoot some of the barred owls in a California experiment to see if the spotted owl will rebound.

Foes of logging on federal lands aren’t celebrating, despite their support for the Endangered Species Act. “We are ambivalent,” Susan Ash, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, leader of six anti-logging groups that weighed in on the lawsuit.

Advocates for the spotted owl don’t believe the Bush administration will prepare the kind of recovery plan needed to guarantee the bird a future, she said.

“But how can you say no to a recovery plan when one is not in place?”

The fate of the spotted owl and its reliance upon disappearing old-growth forests have been the subjects of controversy for more than 20 years.

The Fish & Wildlife Service abandoned its original plan to bring back the owl after the bird’s 1990 listing. Instead, the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan – itself the outgrowth of a lawsuit – set aside more than 7 million acres of federally owned forests as habitat for the owl and other old-growth dependent species.

The recovery plan could add critical habitat or reduce it.

“The big uncertainty for me is I don’t know how it might differ from the Northwest Forest Plan,” Forsman said. “That’s a real hot-button item.”

The owl listing and forest plan – then labeled a compromise between timber interests and logging foes – dramatically changed the region’s timber economy.

Since 1990, more than 250 Pacific Northwest mills have closed, and more than 27,000 loggers and mill workers have lost jobs, according to Paul Ehinger, a forest industry consultant.

Even so, environmental activists who oppose logging continue to press for more conservation measures.

Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756

susan.gordon@thenewstribune.com

Originally published: August 10th, 2005 12:01 AM (PDT)