Friday, April 27, 2007

The federal government yesterday released a draft plan to save the northern spotted owl, nearly two decades after the bird’s listing as a “threatened” species crippled the Northwest timber industry.

The proposal offers two alternatives to recovering the population on 7 million acres of national forests in California, Oregon and Washington in the next 30 years.

One option would continue the policy of designating certain areas off-limits to logging, while the other option would grant more authority to federal land managers.

Previously, the owls and other species in the Pacific Northwest were managed under a general forest plan developed in 1994.

“We felt the forest plan did not provide for certain things that a recovery plan does, like calling for specific recovery actions for this specific species,” said Joan Jewett, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scientists no longer say the greatest threat to the species is logging activity, the culprit for its listing in 1990.

“The draft recovery plan recognizes the primary threat to northern spotted owls as competition with barred owls. This threat has only recently become evident,” the plan says. “Given the urgency of the threat, the recovery plan also proposes a draft barred owl removal strategy.”

The listing of the northern spotted owl resulted in an 80-90 percent reduction in timber sales, forced sawmills to close, “loggers to go broke and a shift in our domestic lumber supply to foreign soils,” says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC).

“It turns out we weren’t addressing the real threats to the species, but it did meet the social-political agenda of some environmentalists,” Mr. West said in response to yesterday’s announcement.

Mr. West said his organization was forced to sue the federal government to move forward on a plan for the owl.

The cost to taxpayers for the plan is estimated at nearly $200 million.

Several environmental organizations were contacted but did not respond to requests for comment. An official with the Sierra Club said they were not aware the plan had been released and were reviewing it last night.

According to the proposal, barred owls are less selective about the habitat they use and the prey they feed upon. They are also out-competing northern spotted owls for habitat and food, causing their decline.

“This draft recovery plan provides a blueprint for recovering the northern spotted owl to the point it no longer needs federal protection,” said Ren Lohoefener, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region. “Because the range and number of barred owls are expanding rapidly, our effectiveness in addressing this threat depends on immediate action.”

Tom Partin, president of AFRC, said it was once thought that the northern spotted owl required old-growth forests to survive, “but we discovered that they need a variety of forest conditions for roosting, foraging and nesting.”

“Unfortunately over the last two decades, significant limitations were placed on forest management based on the old science and faulty assumptions,” Mr. Partin said.

“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, specifically barred owls and catastrophic wildfires,” Mr. Partin said.

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