Is the Obama administration taking a step forward, merely sideways, or — as some environmentalists hope — back to the future on the Northern Spotted Owl? On Sept. 8, the administration issued a brand new draft recovery plan for the owl. While Obama's minions have clung doggedly to Bush "science" on Columbia River salmon, they moved quickly to distance themselves from their predecessors' 2008 owl recovery plan.
The Bush science on owls may have been questionable. The Bush manipulation of science for political ends was probably too blatant to slip past a judge.
Last year, the Obama administration asked a federal court to remand the Bush owl plan back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for another try. It also asked the court to vacate the critical habitat designation based on the Bush recovery plan. On Sept. 1, the court remanded the plan. Seven days later, the Fish and Wildlife Service plugged in the facts of the court decision and issued the new draft, which had obviously been all ready to go. The court let the critical habitat designation stand, for now.
The new draft plan is "better than Bush," says Dominick DellaSala of the Ashland-based National Center for Conservation Science & Policy — "but not quite enough to recover the owl."
The federal government has been running spotted owl plans up the flagpole for nearly 20 years. The bird was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act — after federal courts gave the first Bush administration little choice — in 1990. Two years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a draft recovery plan, and designted critical habitat. In 1994 to protect the owl and stop the litigation that had brought timber sales in the Northwest's federal forests to a grinding halt, the Clinton administration created the Northwest Forest Plan.
The forest plan was designed to protect the owl, the old growth forest for which it had become a symbol and legal surrogate, the old-growth-nesting marbled murrelet, wild salmon runs that spawned in forest streams, and hundreds of other old-growth-associated plants and critters. The Clinton administration never issued a final owl recovery plan, because the Interior Department assumed the Northwest Forest Plan would accomplish the same thing.
Nevertheless, a 2004 status review undertaken by the Bush administration to settle an industry lawsuit found that the trend lines all pointed down. A drop in owl numbers shouldn't have come as a surprise. "Back in the '90s," recalls Todd True, the managing attorney of Earthjustice's Northwest office and who was involved in the key owl litigation of the time, "everyone knew and understood that the spotted owl population wasn't going to turn around on a dime."
Things were going to get worse before they got better — if they got better. "The real question," True recalls, "was whether the popuation could get through a bottleneck before habitat protection measures kicked in." Now, he says, one can also ask "do we need to be doing even more?"
We probably do. No one expected the owl population to crash as rapidly as it has. "Populations of northern spotted owls continue to decline across the range of the species," the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in its 2004 status review, undertaken to settle an industry suit, "with the most severe declines occurring in the northern portion of the range (Washington and British Columbia)." The Forest Plan scientists had foreseen a decline of 1 percent a year as the worst case. Across the owl's full range, the actual rate was more like 3.7 percent. In Washington, it was 7.3 percent — and in parts of Washington, it was been even higher.
The status review pointed to competition from the barred owl as one explanation for the declines. Those who opposed restrictions on logging promptly cited this as evidence that the logging industry in the Northwest had been severely curtailed because of bad science — in effect the culprit had been another owl, not the loss of old growth habitat. But the status review also pointed to the lingering effects of past habitat loss as another cause.
And not all habitat loss lay in the unenlightened past: Wildfires and insects continued to destroy forests after 1994 — and so did chain saws. The forest plan didn't limit logging on state or private land, and didn't totally prevent it on federal land. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals observed in 2004 that in the decade since the forest plan went into effect, the Fish and Wildlife Service had authorized the "incidental take" of 1,000 northern spotted owls and approved logging of more than 82,000 acres of owl habitat.
The status review's implications lay largely in the eye of the beholder. Conservationists figured the federal government should leave enough habitat, the only variable over which it had much control, to buffer the owl from the effects of barred owl invasion and other threats. The Bush administration, however, used the presence of other threats to justify playing down the importance of habitat.
In 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service convened a team to produce a recovery plan and gave it just four months to do the work. The came up with a draft plan that called for preserving some 7 million acres of habitat in long-term reserves that corresponded basically to the "late-successional reserves" established by the Forest Plan. But the recovery team was soon told, in a conference call from Washington, D.C., that an oversight committee composed of high-ranking Agriculture and Interior officials had decided that the draft wouldn't do. The oversight committee wanted a second option, which was to become part of the draft. Option two gave forest managers more flexibility and didn't specify the outlines or locations of habitat reserves.
DellaSala, who was one of the recovery team members, told the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources that "we received notice from the USFWS to 'de-link the owl plan from the Northwest Forest Plan' to provide the Forest Service and BLM with more 'flexibility.' " Exactly one week later, a "memo directed the recovery team to 'indicate (the barred owl) was [the] only threat given priority number 1 ... and summarize the habitat threats discussion into less than a page.' "
All this fit into a pattern of behavior at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The Obama administration told the federal court, "An investigative report issued by the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior on Dec. 15, 2008 concluded that former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald, acting alone or in concert with other Department of the Interior officials, took actions that potentially jeopardized the decisional process in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the northern spotted owl."
The Inspector General hadn't minced words: "MacDonald's zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity of the (Endangered Species Act] program and to the morale and reputation of the (Fish and Wildlife Service), as well as potential harm to individual species. Her heavy-handedness has cast doubt on nearly every ESA decision issued during her tenure. . . .
"In the end, the cloud of MacDonald's overreaching, and the actions of those who enabled and assisted her, have caused the unnecessary expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-issue decisions and litigation costs to defend decisions that, in at least two instances, the courts found to be arbitrary and capricious.”
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