- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2007

Green groups are fuming over a study that suggests that the greatest threat to the northern spotted owl may not be chain-saw-happy lumberjacks, but the owl’s larger, more aggressive East Coast cousin.

The Fish and Wildlife Service recommended last month scaling back the owl’s critical habitat from 6.9 to 5.3 million acres after the release of a draft recovery plan that identified the barred owl as “the primary threat facing the northern spotted owl.”

Environmentalists accused the agency of trying to shift attention to the barred owl in order to aid the ailing Pacific Northwest timber industry — an indication that the Pacific Northwest timber wars of the 1990s may be reignited.

“The ultimate goal here for industry is to dismantle as much of the protective elements of the Northwest Forest Plan as possible before the end of the Bush administration,” said Dominick DellaSala, a member of the agency’s spotted-owl recovery committee.

“If they can put the blame on the barred owl, then they can log old-growth forest,” said Mr. DellaSalla, who heads the National Center for Conservation and Policy.

A 1992 recovery plan placed the blame for the species’ decline on logging in old-growth forest, the owl’s primary habitat. Since then, however, the owl’s numbers have continued to shrink despite drastic reductions in timber harvesting on federal lands.

Chris West, vice president of the Portland, Ore.-based American Forest Resource Council, countered that environmentalists have used the owl to push a political agenda that includes locking up public lands.

“No matter what you do with habitat, if you don’t deal with the barred owl, the spotted owl is going to go kaput,” Mr. West said. “They continue to use the spotted owl as a surrogate for other goals, like no-cut policies on federal lands.”

The barred owl has been migrating from the East Coast across Canada for almost 100 years, but wasn’t identified as a threat to the native northern spotted owl until the past decade, said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett.

She rejected environmentalists’ contentions that the barred owl is being used to bolster the timber industry’s efforts to gain access to more federal land.

“We’re not saying habitat isn’t important anymore,” Miss Jewett said, “but we have a whole new threat to the spotted owl that we didn’t have, or didn’t know about, in 1992, and that’s the barred owl.”

Still, Miss Jewett noted, opposition from environmental groups overwhelmed support from rural communities at four May public hearings on the draft of the recovery plan.

“The environmental community tended to turn out their troops better than the timber industry did,” Miss Jewett said.

The more aggressive barred owl, also known as the hoot owl, has invaded spotted-owl territory, pushing the threatened species from its nesting areas and dominating the hunt for prey, she said.

The barred owl “has become quite prevalent and in many cases has displaced the spotted owl,” Miss Jewett said. “We have places where we have excellent habitat, and yet the barred owl is driving the northern spotted owl away.”

The proposal to reduce the owl’s critical habitat came as a result of advancements in mapping and modeling technology, which enabled scientists to zero in on the best owl conservation areas, according to the agency.

“The recovery plan identifies the area needed to recover the owl, and that doesn’t include every old-growth tree in the owl’s range,” Miss Jewett said. “But our conclusion is that not every old-growth tree is necessary for the recovery of the owl.”

The northern spotted owl’s dwindling numbers prompted one of the most sweeping recovery plans in the history of the Endangered Species Act. After the owl was declared threatened in 1990, logging on federal lands was slashed by more than 80 percent in its habitat in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

The move crippled the U.S. timber industry, contributing to mass mill closings and job losses in the rural Pacific Northwest. The nation went from a net exporter of logs to a net importer, mainly from Canada, which has no such restrictions.

The recent proposals to modify the spotted-owl recovery plan came as part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed in 2002 by timber interests. The settlement called for the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a five-year review and a reconsideration of its original critical-habitat designation.

The public-comment period on the draft recovery plan and critical-habitat revision extends until mid-August.

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