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
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
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."