Environmentalists knock Obama plan for spotted owls

Environmental groups say a draft recovery plan is better than anything produced in the Bush administration, but not good enough.

Environmental groups say a draft recovery plan is better than anything produced in the Bush administration, but not good enough.

The Obama Administration's draft spotted owl recovery plan is better than the Bush version but still not good enough, scientists from the American Ornithologists' Union and the Society for Conservation Biology have concluded in a recently released review of the draft. In a separate review, The Wildlife Society has reached a similar conclusion.

The Obama administration withdrew the 2008 Bush recovery plan,and released a new draft last September. The reviews were posted on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Northern Spotted Owl portal Dec. 8.

Shooting the barred owls that seem to be displacing spotted owls, as the draft suggests, may be a good idea, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) and the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) say, but it shouldn't be used as a substitute for providing lots of habitat. They said that their reviewers "recognized that (experimental shotgunning of barred owls is) extremely important, and that . . . remov(ing) barred owls experimentally will surely be controversial with the public." The groups continued, "However, one reviewer felt that these efforts are absolutely critical experiments for spotted owl recovery, and should be vigorously pursued, while another thought that shooting barred owls will likely be futile, and the only hope of maintaining spotted owls is to ensure that high quality habitat is available across their range. From this, we conclude (1) that efforts to manage barred owls need to be done in an experimentally sound way so that the effectiveness can be properly evaluated, and (2) that barred owl control should not substitute for appropriate habitat restoration and protection.”

The Wildlife Society approves of the plans to whack barred owls. It suggests that "the emphasis on the barred owl threat . . . is appropriate, and . . . there is an urgent need to initiate research and experiments to determine if this threat can be ameliorated."

All of the reviewers criticize the draft's assumption to a net loss of habitat and its proposals to reduce fire risk. The Wildlife Society is particularly leery of widespread thinning of forests on the east side of the mountains. It notes that "recommendations (in an unpublished report on which the Fish and Wildlife Service had relied heavily) would subject suitable spotted owl habitat to commercial thinning throughout much of the subspecies' range without the knowledge of the effects of such activities on them and their prey base. The recommendations . . . obviously were not designed to maintain or improve spotted owl habitat because (they were) written with a strong emphasis on increasing the volume of timber available for harvest on federal lands. If the (Fish and Wildlife) Service intends on using the best available science in the final recovery plan, it should not be compromised by using unpublished literature that was designed for reasons other than owl recovery.”

In addition, The Wildlife Society notes, the current draft "relies on another unpublished report to assess fire risk . . . and a research proposal . . . as a basis for dry forest management. We requested to see the (fire risk) report and were told it was unavailable. Moreover, the Service had not even seen it and was relying on a synopsis. . . . We received the synopsis, which did not provide sufficient information to evaluate the methodology. The final recovery plan should not rely on unpublished, non-peer reviewed and unavailable literature in lieu of existing science."

The plan must protect habitat that the owls could occupy as well as habitat that they do, the environmental groups say. "Conserving all areas of potential owl habitat, whether or not they are currently occupied (or whether or not they have ever been surveyed), is absolutely imperative to recovery,” say the AOU and SCB. They argue that a narrow focus on occupied areas has proven ineffectual.

Habitat on federal land has been protected, but habitat on state and private land has been hit hard. The OAU and SCB scientists quote an unpblished review that states, “Nearly a half million acres of (late successional and old growth forest) were harvested from non-federal lands between 1994 and 2007 (concentrated in the coastal provinces of Oregon and Washington)." They suggest that this loss "is likely to impede recovery goals in areas such the northern Oregon coast and southeast Washington."

The Wildlife Society agrees. "(W)e believe that increased attention to the contribution of non-federal lands to recovery is more important than ever," it says. “The . . . language in the recovery plan is too vague regarding what exactly will be contributed by non-federal lands.” As a result, "we cannot evaluate whether non-federal lands will be required to contribute to recovery in a meaningful way or not. This is especially the case in Oregon where state forest practices regulations are weaker than those in Washington and California."

The AOU and SCB scientists argue that the draft doesn't adequately address the steep decline of owl populations in Washington and northern Oregon. "The management implications arising from the higher degree of threat to (northern spotted owl) subpopulations in Washington state (are) not treated adequately in the plan,” they say. “One reviewer who is familiar with the actions of state agencies in Washington suggests that regulations seem designed to facilitate continued declines in, rather than recovery of, (owl) populations. Regulations regarding harvesting in and near occupied sites, criteria for determining sites to be no longer occupied or unlikely to be occupied in the future violate all principles of metapopulation dynamics. True, the Draft appropriately focuses on actions that can be taken by the Federal government, but it is clear that state agencies in Washington and Oregon have the potential to play key roles in NSO conservation efforts.”

The Wildlife Society concludes that "there are areas of improvement" over the last Bush administration effort, but "on balance the (current draft) still falls far short of being an adequate recovery plan for northern spotted owls. The lack of a recommended habitat reserve system is the most striking flaw of the (current draft). This system is an extremely critical component of the plan and must be developed and peer reviewed before the plan can be considered final. The failure to use best available science in developing other recommendations, most notably the recommendations for management of dry forests, will likely undermine the achievement of recovery criteria. Given the conservation history of the northern spotted owl and the high level of scrutiny, TWS is surprised and dismayed that the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service . . . would prematurely release a revised recovery plan that has many of the same problems that were identified in previous drafts.”


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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.