The recent proposed Critical Habitat designation for the Northern Spotted Owl does not protect the threatened species charge the Society for Conservation Biology, The Wildlife Society, American Bird Conservancy (ABC), and other groups. Comments submitted by the groups find that, by encouraging controversial and unproven logging practices in owl habitat, the draft plan fails to provide adequate habitat protection essential for the owl’s survival.
The groups are highly critical of the “active management” approach being taken by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and have requested an Environmental Impact Statement to determine its impact on owl habitat and population trends. A previous review of the Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan by scientists at The Wildlife Society has been ignored by FWS, and the same flaws are now being included by the agency in the Critical Habitat plan. This raises serious questions about the scientific process used by the agency.
The Wildlife Society was particularly critical of proposals to allow for clearcutting (called “regeneration harvest” in the plan) of moist forests, which they say is hard to justify scientifically, incompatible with Critical Habitat, and detrimental to owls and ecological restoration. Old forest has already been reduced by past logging and the northern spotted owl continues to decline.
“FWS’s apparent decision to move forward with untested “active management” of federally owned forest lands at the landscape level prior to validation through scientific peer-review process represents a potentially serious lapse in the application of the scientific process. FWS’s entire habitat management scheme for the Spotted Owl simply amounts to a giant house of cards. This approach is not precautionary or representative of the scientific method,” says the comment letter of the Society for Conservation Biology.
”The draft appears to facilitate a substantial increase of timber harvest in the region, while providing a minimum of habitat protection,” said Steve Holmer, Senior Policy Advisor at American Bird Conservancy. “This has the potential to allow excessive logging to the detriment of the Northern Spotted Owl and may prevent owl recovery by not providing adequate late-successional forest necessary to ensure high quality owl habitat in the future.”
ABC is also concerned about changes to land management plans likely to result from the Critical Habitat rule. The proposed Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Plan revision would eliminate the existing owl reserves and language in the Rule’s Environmental Assessment gives that the green light.
“ABC strongly disagrees and is urging the Administration to modify the proposed Critical Habitat rule to ensure that the protected reserves of the Northwest Forest Plan are maintained,” said Holmer. “The proposal encouraging modification of habitat for so-called “eco-forestry” purposes is not supported by the best available science and should also be removed from the final rule.”
The draft Economic Analysis completed by FWS as part of the plan is faulty because it offers an incomplete look at the effects of the Rule by analyzing only the potential value of timber production, while ignoring other monetary benefits provided by maturing and old-growth forests, such as stable stream flows, clean water supplies, and carbon storage. This was the conclusion of an independent economic review by economist Ernie Niemi, facilitated by ABC.
“The Draft Economic Analysis narrowly focuses on how the designation of Critical Habitat would affect the timber industry, disregarding its other impacts on the economy, and misconstrues the designation’s timber-related benefits by looking only at the market value of the additional logs and ignoring the costs of producing them,” said Niemi.
Other threatened species such as the Marbled Murrelet and salmon may also be harmed by the proposed active management. The rule’s draft Environmental Assessment found that “Active forest management that is in the vicinity of murrelet nesting stands may be detrimental to the species survival and recovery,” yet, the draft rule places no restriction on active management in murrelet habitat.
The conservation history of the Northern Spotted Owl offers important lessons that seem to have been forgotten. During the peak logging years in the Pacific Northwest, old-growth forests on public lands were being rapidly liquidated. As far back as 1983, FWS scientists confirmed the Northern Spotted Owl’s decline was caused by the loss of its old-growth forest habitat, but a series of legislative riders actually increased the rate of logging. When the owl was finally protected under the Endangered Species Act and conservation groups were able to intervene with lawsuits in 1991, a federal judge found that the land management agencies had systematically and deliberately violated wildlife protection laws, and ordered a shutdown of the entire region’s federal timber sale program.
“What was left was an ecosystem in tatters, with only small patches of old-growth forest remaining in a heavily fragmented landscape, and old-growth dependent species such as the Spotted Owl, Marbled Murrelet and salmon on the brink,” said Holmer. “The Northwest Forest Plan was developed as the key to ending the mismanagement, providing protection for much of the remaining old growth, and to allowing for a sustainable level of harvest to resume; the plan is working to heal the forests, and we should stick with it.”
Image courtesy American Bird Conservancy