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White House proposes killing spotted owl rival Owls at Odds

Source:  Copyright 2007, Columbian
Date:  April 27, 2007
Byline:  Kathie Durbin
Original URL: Status DEAD

The Bush administration has proposed a new way to help the threatened northern spotted owl: killing its principal rival for habitat.

In a draft spotted owl recovery plan released Thursday, the administration downplayed the impact of logging old-growth forests and proposed using shotguns to reduce the number of the larger, more aggressive barred owls that have been encroaching on spotted owl territory and competing for prey and nesting areas.

"Although habitat is still important, competition from barred owls is considered to be the largest threat to the northern spotted owl," said Dave Wesley, deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who led the recovery team.

Environmentalists immediately denounced the plan as a timber industry-driven plot that distorts science, undermines the Northwest Forest Plan and clears the way for more logging of the old Northwest forests, the owl's preferred habitat.

"The owl plan is a key domino," said Dominick DellaSalla of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, a member of the recovery team. "As a result of this, what we could see at the end of the administration is the death knell of the Northwest Forest Plan."

Forest land threatened

As an indicator of the health of old-growth forests, the northern spotted owl became the means by which environmentalists successfully challenged the Northwest federal timber sale program in court in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Former President Bill Clinton ordered the development of the Northwest Forest Plan to protect the owl and a number of other threatened species and get the timber sale program out of the courts.

The new proposal concludes that logging in old-growth forests is now a relatively minor threat to the survival of the spotted owl, after competition from the barred owl and wildfires. Its goal is to stabilize owl populations, which continue to decline, so that the species, listed as threatened in 1990, could be removed from the federal endangered species list in 30 years.

The plan also would also allow local Forest Service officials to devise their own owl protection plans rather than rely on the mapped reserves in the Northwest Forest Plan.

DellaSalla said giving local agency officials discretion to design their own owl reserves would eliminate protection for 823,519 acres of forest that is suitable for owls today and 1.6 million acres of future owl habitat.

Industry backs change

The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, hailed the new approach represented by the recovery plan.

In the past, Tom Partin, the council's president, said, "it was believed that the owl required old growth forest to survive, but we discovered that they needed a variety of forest conditions for roosting, foraging and nesting."

"Unfortunately, over the past two decades, significant limitations were placed on forest management based on old science and faulty assumptions," Partin said in a statement. "Not only did the restrictions have devastating consequences on our rural timber-dependent communities, but they didn't even address the real risks to the spotted owl."

The original recovery plan, produced by a panel of biologists over five months, was rewritten last fall at the direction of an oversight committee of political appointees, including Forest Service Undersecretary Mark Rey, Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dale Hall.

The oversight committee ordered the recovery team to put more emphasis on threats from the barred owl. One memo directed the team to "emphasize the new science ? and de-emphasize the past." Another said the plan should be "less focused on habitat preservation." A third directed the scientists to "summarize the habitat threats into less than a page" and "eliminate reference to the (Northwest Forest Plan)."

Ren Lohoefener, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the oversight by the administration was not surprising. "For any species that is controversial in nature, it's not at all exceptional for there to be interest at the federal level," he said.

Lohoefener said the plan recognizes that conditions have changed since 1994, when the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted. "It recognizes the dynamic world we live in," he said. In the past, he added, "recovery plans have failed because they are static."

Shooting plan detailed

Under the administration's new plan, barred owls would be lured with decoys, then killed with shotguns. The method has been tried on private timberland in California but never on federal land.

The plan calls for shooting barred owls at 18 sites within the spotted owl's range, with the expectation that 12 to 32 barred owls would be killed at each site. Agency officials could not say how often barred owls would be shot or whether the killing would continue as the birds replenished their numbers over time.

Although the recovery plan is advisory in nature and would not have the force of law, it would become enforceable - and subject to lawsuits - at the point national forests in the Northwest adopt its provisions when they revise their forest management plans over the next 10 years.

"I don't see a circumstance where the Forest Service would ignore the recovery plan," said agency official Cal Joiner. "That would be a silly thing to do."

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