Spotted owls get a hand from Obama, but is it enough?

The Obama administration has pushed aside a weak Bush-era protection plan. But the owl is in precarious condition.

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Northern Spotted Owl

The Obama administration has pushed aside a weak Bush-era protection plan. But the owl is in precarious condition.

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.”

A final recovery plan based on a draft created under these circumstances stood no chance of surviving a legal challenge. The Bush administraiton backed off somewhat. Shortly before it headed out the door, the Bush team issued a final recovery plan and a critical habitat designation that protected roughly 25 percent less old growth than the Northwest Forest Plan. Unlike the draft, it recognized past and present habitat loss as the owl's greatest threat . To reduce the impact of fire and disease in eastside pine forests, it also called for increased thinning. — which has long served as a pretext for letting loggers into forests that would otherwise be off-limits.

With the Obama administration's new draft, "they are currently moving the importance of protecting habitat back to the top of the list," says Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles. "That's pretty big."

On the west side of the mountains, the draft goes back to the habitat protection of the Northwest Forest Plan. The draft's authors say, "We recommend retaining all occupied sites and unoccupied, high quality spotted owl habitat on all lands to the maximum extent possible."

The first Bush draft plan called for shotgunning barred owls, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would still like to do it, albeit on a narrowly experimental basis. The FWS wouldn't use it as a large-scale management tool unless there was evidence that it worked. (There is, of course, plenty of evidence that one can use a shotgun to kill birds. But there isn't much evidence yet that killing barred owls leads to larger spotted owl populations.)

DellaSala praises this cautious, experimental approach. He just wishes it had been applied to thinning of fire-prone forests east of the Cascades. He suggests that the government is "still over-playing the fire card."

No one really disputes the fact that there are a lot of dead and diseased trees east of the mountains that represent big fires waiting to happen. Climate change will only make the situation worse. Once upon a time, large areas went up in smoke, but most critters could take refuge in other large areas that remained unburned. Now, the habitat base has shrunk, while generations of fire suppression have only increased the fuel load. What to do?

The plan's answer is to go in there aggressively and thin those tinder-box woods. "In drier forest landscapes of the eastern Cascades, California Cascades, and Klamath Provinces," the draft plan says, "dynamic, disturbance-prone forests should be actively managed in a way that addresses the complementary goals of spotted owl recovery, responding to climate change, and restoring dry-forest ecological structure, composition and processes."

However, it acknowledges that "peer reviewers found the specific management recommendations in the 2008 Plan to be aggressive, untested, and not supported by analysis. We are modifying these recommendations" based on a number of studies — but not fundamentally changing them.

"We recognize these recommendations may generate some controversy," the planners write, but "(w)hile there is tremendous uncertainty about future landscape conditions due to fire risk, climate change, and dry-forest ecosystem dynamics, we agree with: a scientists' statements that "in fire-prone forests, management inaction is not an option."

"Given the need for action in the face of uncertainty," they say, "we recommend that Federal land managers implement a program of landscape-scale, science-based adaptive restoration treatments in disturbance-prone forests."

In other words, they won't just go out and thin the forest without checking to see what happens afterward, but they will go out and thin on a massive scale before they check. "An experiment at this scale is automatically troubling to me," Boyles says.

There have been only two studies of the owl's response to fire, DellaSala says, and "both of those studies show the owl is pretty resilient." In the absence of any real evidence, "they're trying to argue now that logging can save the owl." By proposing to thin the east-side forests on an industrial, rather than an experimental, scale, "they're putting the management cart in front of the science horse."

Assuming this draft becomes the final, more or less unchanged, the impact of thinning eastside forests is not the only big unknown. The draft says that its protection of owl habitat will be based on a new computer model that is not yet complete. The model will obviously play a crucial role. Stay tuned.

And whatever the plan winds up saying, it won't mean much until government agencies translate it into concrete decisions on the ground. "All of it comes down to how it's implemented by the working groups," DellaSala says. In general, Boyles says, "there is a history of recovery plans on paper ... as long, hortatory documents that then get ignored."

"All of it comes down to how it's implemented by the working groups" of state and federal agency managers who will actually have to carry out the plan, Della Sala explains. "I'm concerned particularly about the BLM in Oregon," he says. “Oregon has the most abysmal forestry practices" compared to Washington and Califonrnia. But throughout the owl's range, he warns, unless the agencies are "willing to stop logging old growth forests, the whole plan is going to come apart."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.