Owl habitat proposed, again

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Sep 13, 2004
by WLJ
— Another court challenge planned.
— Ranchers take "wait-and-see" attitude.
By Steven D. Vetter
WLJ Editor

In responding to a court order, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) very late last month announced it was designating approximately 8.6 million acres in four states as critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl. That announcement was met with a lot of disgust by environmental activists, while ag interests were taking a much more "wait-and-see" attitude.
Under the new proposal, approximately four million acres will be affected in Arizona, 2.2 million acres in Utah, 2.1 million acres in New Mexico, and a little more than 322,000 acres in Colorado.
The August 31 announcement complies with a court order to designate habitat for the owl, but environmental groups said the agency ignored science and favored several industries, including agriculture and timber. Those same groups said they will ask a judge, for a third time, to reject the plan.
Environmentalists are in favor of an original 1993 habitat plan, proposed by then President Bill Clinton, to include more than 13 million acres of forest and privately-owned land as critical habitat. A couple years ago, the Interior Department, under Bush, announced that approximately four million acres would be set aside as owl habitat, however, environmentalists filed suit against that decision and a federal judge ordered the government to come up with a larger acreage figure.
In published statements, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Tucson, AZ, has cited President George W. Bush's intent of siding with the timber industry at all costs when it comes to designating habitat for species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Additionally, activist have cited livestock grazing as being another practice threatening the viability of habitat for "endangered" or "threatened" species.
Kieran Suckling, policy director for CBD, said, "That's the exact opposite of what critical habitat is supposed to be about."
Environmentalists have said the agency left out over 150 areas, in all four designated states, known to have Mexican spotted owls, and that they will go back to court and ask a judge to mandate FWS to increase their critical habitat designation one more time.
Ranching organizations last week said they were actively investigating the agency's announcement, but they also indicated that they are waiting to make sure this proposal becomes the final plan before getting too excited.
"In our minds, FWS finally got this right. They designated enough land, but left out a lot of private land that environmentalists had been targeting," said Doc Lane, director of private and public lands for the Arizona Cattle Growers Association (ACGA). "(On the surface) this decision appears to be one we (ranchers) can live with, but it's not a done deal, particularly with another court battle on the horizon. This is the third time we've been through this, and when the final gavel has been pounded we will react appropriately."
In addition, Lane said that there is likely to be a little bit of impact on federally-managed grazing lands, but an extensive amount of damage is unlikely because a lot of adjustments to AUMs and stocking rates have been made over the past several years due to extensive, prolonged drought.
"The damage has been done, and there's little more that they can do to restrict grazing, in several areas," Lane said.
Ranching officials in the other targeted states noted similar circumstances, as overly dry, hot weather the past four to six years has resulted in poorer grazing conditions and lighter-than-normal stocking rates and shorter grazing seasons being implemented.
According to FWS officials, of the 8.6 million acres proposed as critical habitat, 15-20 percent is said to be land that has year-round grazing permits, while another 25-35 percent are permitted for seasonal grazing. Under the Clinton proposal of 13 million acres, sources said that between 65-75 percent of critical habitat would have been on lands, both public and private, that support grazing at least part of the year.
FWS can designate critical habitat areas as part of a recovery plan for a threatened or endangered species. While critical habitat doesn't affect land ownership, like a "wilderness" or "park" designation does, it does add a new layer of review for projects that would disturb the area. That review process can slow down the ability of ranchers to both stock and graze their livestock, and can also result in a modification of grazing levels, even on privately-owned land. — WLJ