Spotted Owl Protection Plan Seeks to Control Habitat

March 5, 2012 Updated: March 5, 2012

Federal conservationists this week announced a new plan to protect the spotted owl. In a proposal that aims to actively control the bird’s habitat, recommendations included further preservation of old growth forest, opening some areas to controlled logging, and an effort to remove a competing species.

The northern spotted owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 after years of struggle among environmentalists, government, and the timber industry. Two decades later the struggle continues, with loggers still frustrated by forest protections, and owl numbers still dwindling by about 3 percent a year.

When U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited three forestry pilot projects in Oregon last week, he called for moving beyond the lawsuits and court battles, and instead focusing on how both sides can come together.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan unveiled this week attempts to meet this goal. Based on a 2011 analysis, the court ordered proposal provides protections for remaining old growth forests, as well as a recommendation for ecological timber harvesting that experts say will actually improve the habitat.

“With the latest science and the lessons from these pilot projects, we can apply the principles of ecological forestry to the broader landscape and address the growing risks of catastrophic fire, insect infestation, and climate change,” said Salazar in a statement.

But not everyone’s convinced. Environmentalists applauded the recommended increase of old growth forest designated as owl habitat, but questioned the move to open Oregon’s Cascade Mountains to logging. The American Bird Conservancy issued a statement saying that it would like to see research on small-scale projects before subjecting the entire area to these treatments.

The bird conservancy group points out that the critical habitat designation in the FWS proposal works to eliminate a system of reserves created under the Northwest Forest Plan that environmentalists say benefit the threatened bird. This proposed strategy has already seen strong opposition from a number of scientific societies that peer-reviewed the draft owl recovery plan.

However, the bird conservation group did support FWS’s proposed experiment to see whether removing hundreds of barred owls will benefit its smaller spotted cousin. A growing body of evidence shows that competition from the larger and more aggressive barred owl is a major factor in the spotted owl’s decline. About one-third of the recovery plan focuses on addressing this threat.

Native to eastern North America, barred owls are relative newcomers to the U.S. Pacific Northwest, but have managed to thrive. The birds are known to displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting, and compete with them for food. Barred owls now outnumber the spotted owl in much of its native habitat.

According to an FWS Barred Owl Management fact sheet, the removal will be accomplished by “lethal or nonlethal methods, such as capturing and relocating or placing in permanent captivity.” The FWS says that if the barred owl removal experiment is a success, they may consider implementation on a broader scale.

According to Secretary Salazar, confronting the growing impact of the invasive barred owl “can give communities, foresters, and land managers [the] additional tools they need to forge a healthier and more productive future for our forests.”

Before the plan goes into effect, the proposal is subject to public review, and a presidential memorandum directing the Interior Department to maximize flexibility and promote economic growth. The process aims to provide clear direction for the timber industry in regard to logging in a critical habitat area, and define which of the eligible lands will be included in the final rule.

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