Scientists: Obama plan for spotted owl not enough

GRANTS PASS — The Obama administration's plan for saving spotted owls isn't much better than the one proposed by his predecessor, experts on the threatened bird said.

Wildlife scientists said both administrations put too much blame on wildfire as a major threat to the survival of spotted owls, and did not do enough to protect old-growth forest habitat from logging.

The reviewers were hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the Obama plan and included some who were involved in a lawsuit challenging the Bush plan.

"The main point is, 'It's the habitat, dummy,'" said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the Geos Institute in Ashland, who served on the team drafting the 2008 owl recovery plan for the Bush administration. "The Fish and Wildlife Service just doesn't get it."

The institute is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration plan.

Reviewers also complained the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not use the best available science — required by the Endangered Species Act — to create the draft plan.

The northern spotted owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 primarily because of heavy logging in old growth forests of the Northwest. Despite major cutbacks in logging on federal lands, its numbers have continued to decline.

In recent years, an Eastern cousin, the barred owl, has made matters worse by driving spotted owls from their territories, particularly in Washington state.

The spotted owl's need for old growth forests has long put it at the center of legal and political battles over logging in the Northwest. Lawsuits from conservation groups led to a reduction of more than 80 percent in logging on federal lands in 1994, causing economic pain in many logging towns.

Reviewers for The Wildlife Society said the Obama administration plan justified the need for logging to reduce fire risk when there was plentiful evidence to the contrary.

Studies show that prey may actually increase for owls in burned over forests, and the rate of severe forest fires would have to increase five to eight times to pose a serious threat to the amount of habitat, they wrote. Meanwhile, there is minimal research to show that thinning forests does not drive out spotted owls.

They acknowledged that the latest draft was better than the Bush plan, but complained the draft plan was incomplete.

It lacked a design for habitat reserves, making it impossible to determine if enough habitat would be protected for existing owls, as well as expected increases as the species recovers, they said.

Paul Henson, who heads endangered species programs for Fish and Wildlife in Oregon, said the plan called for preserving old growth forests in general and the specifics would be dealt with in the next phase, creation of a new habitat conservation plan.

He added a lot of scientific evidence showed that wildfire posed a significant threat, especially as global warming progresses.

"The main theme here is, we feel we are hitting this right down the scientific center," Henson said.

The Bush administration created a spotted owl recovery plan in 2008 that made room for a major increase in logging on federal lands in the Northwest. It blamed wildfires and incursions by the much more aggressive barred owl for the precipitous decline in spotted owls, despite major cutbacks in logging.

Last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew that plan after deciding it could not stand up to legal challenges. An inspector general had found undue political interference.

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