Scientists say spotted owl plan not good enough

Scientists say spotted owl plan not good enough
A northern spotted owl sits on a tree in the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, May 8, 2003. (AP Photo/File)
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - The Bush administration's latest plan for saving the northern spotted owl from extinction while allowing a boost in old growth logging was better, but still not good enough, according to three leading professional organizations of wildlife scientists.

The Wildlife Society, the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists Union said in independent peer reviews released Monday that the final plan adopted in May was better than the draft they flunked a year ago, but there was still no scientific basis for allowing more logging of the old growth forests where the threatened bird lives.

"Given that the northern spotted owl has been experiencing about a 4 percent annual rate of population decline for the last 15 years, any reductions from current levels of habitat protection cannot be justified," the joint review by the Society for Conservation Biology and American Ornithologists Union said.

The reviews estimated the recovery plan still allows for destruction of 20 percent to 56 percent of the spotted owl habitat currently protected.

The spotted owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 due primarily to heavy logging in the old growth forests where it nests and feeds in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Lawsuits from conservation groups led to a reduction of more than 80 percent in logging on federal lands.

Working with the timber industry under a lawsuit settlement, the Bush administration has been trying to increase logging levels, but has repeatedly been stymied by court rulings.

The owl recovery plan produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a key underpinning of plans by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to ramp up logging in Western Oregon old growth forests, a source of revenue for rural counties.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett acknowledged the service had seen the reviews, but remained confident that its recovery plan would bring the owl back to healthy numbers over the next 30 years.

"They are sort of rushing to this assumption of if it hasn't been identified as an owl conservation area, it isn't going to be providing any habitat area to the owls, and that simply is not true," she said from Portland.

She added that Fish and Wildlife had worked with BLM and the U.S. Forest Service to protect high-quality owl habitat outside the areas that are off-limits to logging. Taking also into consideration conservation efforts on private and state lands, "we feel like we have a pretty solid broad network of habitat to work with for the recovery of the owl," she said.

That is the problem, said Dominick DellaSala, a member of the original team of scientists who worked on the recovery plan and executive director of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy in Ashland.

The owl recovery plan gives BLM and the Forest Service too much latitude to log in owl habitat - a lack of regulatory control identified as one of the reasons for listing the owl as a threatened species in the first place, he said.

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, the timber industry group that brought the lawsuit that kicked off the owl recovery plan, said logging is necessary to thin out owl habitat that is being lost at an alarming rate to wildfire.

A new threat from the barred owl, a native of the eastern United States that has pushed spotted owls out of their territory, has led to arguments from the timber industry that it is no longer necessary to protect so much old growth if there are no spotted owls living in it.

The Wildlife Society warned that going ahead with this recovery plan would dismantle the Northwest Forest Plan, adopted in 1994 to protect national forest habitat for the owl, salmon, and other species, and would likely lead to a "nightmare" scenario of more species going on the endangered species list and Fish and Wildlife losing its credibility.

The Society for Conservation Biology and American Ornithologists Union said the latest recovery plan was an improvement over the last effort, but was still inadequate for restoring healthy spotted owl populations because it would allow the loss of more habitat to logging.

After the draft plan was flunked a year ago, Fish and Wildlife redrafted it, reducing the emphasis on threats from the barred owl and providing for more habitat protection.