Conservation groups challenge spotted owl recovery plan

In this May 8, 2003 file photo, a northern spotted owl sits on a tree in the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. Conservation groups are suing the Bush administration to undo the northern spotted owl recovery plan that is making it possible to ramp up old growth forest logging in Oregon. <BR><I>AP file photo

GRANTS PASS - Conservation groups are suing the Bush administration to undo the northern spotted owl recovery plan that is making it possible to ramp up old growth forest logging in Oregon.

A coalition of conservation groups filed motions Monday to intervene in a timber industry lawsuit over the owl in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Seattle Audubon Society and the others argue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was politically influenced by the Bush administration and violated the Endangered Species Act by ignoring the best available science, both in the plan for saving the owl from extinction and in deciding to reduce protections for old growth forests where the owl lives by 1.6 million acres.

The owl recovery plan twice flunked peer reviews by outside scientists who said it contained no scientific basis for allowing more logging of the old growth forests set aside under the Northwest Forest Plan as habitat for the owl. The plan also identified wildfire and the invasion of spotted owl territory by the barred owl as factors in the threatened bird's decline.

Dominick DellaSala of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, served on a team of scientists who worked on the owl recovery plan before it was taken over by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

He said they were prevented from doing their jobs by a group of Bush administration officials in Washington, who needed an owl recovery plan that would allow logging in old growth forests in order to push through the so-called Whopper, or Western Oregon Plan Revision, which dismantles the Northwest Forest Plan for saving owls and increases logging on federal lands in Western Oregon.

Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, the public interest law firm representing the conservation groups, said the owl recovery plan, smaller critical habitat and the Whopper, "are the final pieces to the puzzle the Bush administration has been putting together the last eight years to undo the Northwest Forest Plan and deliver unsustainable amounts of timber to the timber industry.

"And they are happening at the last minutes of this administration, and we are going to have to be fighting those even once we get into an Obama administration that hopefully will have a more scientifically valid view of what old growth forests and rivers and streams in the Pacific Northwest need."

Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Joan Jewett said she could not comment on pending litigation.

The timber industry lawsuit also argues that Fish and Wildlife ignored the best available science, but for a different reason. Because wildfire and the spotted owl pose significant threats to the spotted owl's survival, even greater reductions in old growth forest protections, known as critical habitat, should have been made.

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said the recovery plan was a good one, but leaving so much forest in critical habitat will prevent the logging needed to prevent future wildfires that will destroy even more acres.

"We need the ability to manage the lands to be sure they stay in a more healthy state," Partin said. "We just feel we'll lose more acres of owl critical habitat to fire."

The spotted owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 primarily because of heavy logging in old growth forests. Lawsuits from conservation groups led to the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan, which cut logging on federal lands by more than 80 to protect habitat for the owl, salmon and other species.

The declining log production led to economic pain in the region, particularly in small logging towns, and the Bush administration has been trying since 2000 to relax environmental laws and regulations to boost logging levels, with little success.

Research shows that spotted owl numbers continue to drop by 4 percent annually as a result of logging, wildfires and an invasion of its habitat by the barred owl, a more aggressive East Coast cousin that migrated across Canada and has been working its way south.

The Bush administration agreed to produce a new spotted owl recovery plan and review the critical habitat designation under terms of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the timber industry.

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