Obama administration increases critical habitat for spotted owl

Dec 1, 2012

In a recent effort to bolster dwindling populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a final rule designating just under 9.6 million acres of Pacific Northwest forest as critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. The decision, released Nov. 21, nearly doubles a 2008 Bush-era designation of 5.8 million acres.

A lawsuit prompted FWS to revise the former decision.

Although the new rule represents a significant increase over the 2008 designation, it was 4.2 million acres fewer than the 13.9 million acres originally proposed by FWS in February, when a draft of the rule was published. All private land and much of the state land originally proposed for protection were excluded from the final rule.

In the final breakdown, the majority of protected habitat is on land managed by the National Forest Service (7.9 million acres) and the Bureau of Land Management (1.3 million acres) with just under 300,000 acres on state lands.

Oregon was allotted the lion’s share of protected forest with 4.5 million acres of critical habitat within its borders. Washington and California contain 2.9 and 2.1 million acres of critical habitat, respectively.

Agency personnel maintain that the expanded critical habitat balances the need to protect the owl and to provide for other forest uses, including logging. In what has proven to be a sore point for some environmental groups, the rule allows for “ecological timber harvests” as a means of fire and pest control.

“We applied the best available science to identify the remaining habitat essential to the spotted owl’s recovery—and to ensure that our recovery partners have the clarity and flexibility they need to make effective land management decisions,” said Robyn Thorson, director of the Service’s Pacific Region in an agency press release. “We fully support conservation strategies and forest treatments that restore the health and natural dynamics of entire forest ecosystems to sustain all their many values.”

The timber industry, however, has been roundly critical of the expansion of protected habitat, which industry representatives expect will further diminish logging throughout the region. Although a critical habitat designation does not require an outright ban on logging, any activity that has the potential to impact the habitat or the owl itself will have to be reviewed in consultation with FWS. Critics claim that the added layer of consultation will foreclose on timber harvesting of any significant volume.

“That component of the timber supply that comes off federal lands will be severely inhibited,” said Ross Mickey, federal forest manager for the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group. “It would be taking it out of the sustained yield, sustained forestry mode.”

Questions have also arisen regarding the computer-generated models used to identify essential habitat for the owls. According to Mickey, the models fail to accurately represent forest land, much of which, he contends, does not have the essential characteristics for spotted owl habitat.

“The process used by the FWS in determining critical habitat is fatally flawed,” said Mickey, who added that FWS’s procedure for selecting critical habitat did not meet Endangered Species Act (ESA) standards.

Asked if the timber industry is considering a legal appeal of the rule, Mickey replied: “We’re looking at our options right now.”

Failure to reverse the fortunes of the foundering species has led environmental groups to call for even widerreaching restrictions on forest use, particularly timber cutting. The timber and grazing industries, by contrast, have urged FWS to use more active management of the larger and more aggressive barred owls, which are taking over spotted owl habitat.

Native to the eastern U.S., barred owls are recognized by FWS as a primary threat to the spotted owl’s survival.

California Cattlemen’s Association Director of Government Relations Margot Parks said in an email that the expansion of critical habitat is likely to negatively affect rural economies, but have little effect on the spotted owl’s recovery.

“It is evident that recovery efforts thus far have proven ineffective, but we believe that this is not because of a lack of protected habitat, but for a variety of other reasons, including the increase of the predatory barred owl and the mismanagement of much of the state’s forests which have led to increased fuel loads and devastating fires which have destroyed the very habitat these rules are promulgated to protect,” said Parks.

“Increasing critical habitat will do nothing to bolster protective measures for the spotted owl, and will certainly result in economic loss and devastation to rural communities, as it has already proven to do.”

Critical habitat is designated under the ESA to protect areas deemed essential to the survival of endangered or threatened species. The northern spotted owl has been listed as threatened since 1990, and its first critical habitat designated in1992. Yet despite extensive efforts to increase their numbers, including restricting timber harvests on millions of acres through the Clintonera Northwest Forest Plan, spotted owl populations have continued to shrink at a rate of 2.9 percent a year, resulting in an estimated 40 percent population drop over the last 25 years, according to FWS. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent