Spotted owl: Still at risk or out of woods? Timber industry wins federal review -- and some are suspicious



Remember the northern spotted owl? The reclusive bird's plight sparked the 1990s "war in the woods" and all but halted logging of federal forests in the Pacific Northwest. "Spotted owl burgers" appeared on cafe menus in many a timber town.

Could it be that the spotted owl is doing OK after all? Maybe so. At least that's what the Bush administration says. Environmentalists are suspicious, though.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, bowing to timber industry demands, is reviewing whether the owls still deserve the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

In 1990 the owls were designated as "threatened," meaning they would be in danger of extinction if their numbers kept dropping.

The wildlife service also is launching a review of protections for the marbled murrelet, a pigeon-size bird declared "threatened" in 1992.

"The key thing to us is, it's been a decade" since the birds won protection, said Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber-industry group.

"We want the administration to follow the law, and we want the latest and best information to be used instead of decade-old assumptions."

The Endangered Species Act requires a "status review" every five years for each of more than 1,200 plants and animals protected under the law. But in practice, few reviews have been done.

"Status reviews have not exactly been at the top of the to-do list for a lot of the species, and when they have been done most have been perfunctory," said Hugh Vickery, a spokesman for the Interior Department. "There's a limited amount of resources."

But last month, the Bush administration settled lawsuits with the timber industry by agreeing to review protections for the owl and murrelet.

And, significantly, officials agreed to re-evaluate how much land needs to be left unlogged for the birds. So even if both species are still considered "threatened" after the review, the 7 million-plus acres set aside to help them could be whittled down.

"It will ultimately end up with decisions that are not good for the environment," predicts Kristen Boyles, a Seattle attorney with the Earthjustice law firm challenging the administration's agreement to settle the lawsuits. "I haven't heard anyone say the owls are OK. . . .

"This is a coordinated effort between the timber industry and the administration to take certain actions in a timetable that's going to produce a result that is more favorable to their position and not just take a straight-up look at the science."

A high-level Bush administration lawyer who is a member of the libertarian Federalist Society and a former mining lobbyist approved the lawsuit settlement and review of the bird's status.

Thomas Sansonetti, assistant attorney general in charge of environment and natural resources, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Environmentalists charge that the decision is part of a pattern in which the Bush administration settles industry lawsuits on terms favorable to industry or finds other ways to support industry positions in court.

For example, the administration failed to appeal a court ruling that withdrew protections for more than 58 million acres of roadless land in national forests.

And U.S. Forest Service officials have sought to jettison painstaking searches for mosses, salamanders and other hard-to-find plants and animals -- searches that have bolstered lawsuits by environmentalists challenging logging in national forests.

Environmentalists have complained bitterly about these and other actions. But West, of the timber group, said he considers it "hilarious to hear the environmentalists whine and cry" about reversals of Clinton administration environmental policies because the Clinton administration did much the same thing.

It failed to challenge 13 court decisions that overturned policies from the first Bush administration, according to a review prepared for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Vickery, the Interior Department spokesman, said the status reviews for the owl and murrelet are not necessarily bad news for the birds.

"It doesn't lessen protections for them, and it doesn't require any changes in the management of their habitat," he said. "The service has agreed to do what it is supposed to do under the (Endangered Species) Act."

Both birds drove creation of the Clinton-brokered Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, which was supposed to end the timber wars. But since the agreement, the amount of timber actually harvested from federal land has never reached the levels envisioned in the pact, timber industry officials complain.

West said the government should take into account new information that has come to light in recent years. He thinks it will benefit the timber industry.

For example, he cited a finding that the barred owl, a larger and more aggressive bird than the spotted owl, is displacing its smaller cousin in many places.

"If the modification of habitat (by logging) isn't as big an issue as its ability to compete with another species, then the (protection) may be modified," West said.

And genetic work has shown marbled murrelets in Canada and Alaska are quite similar to the 16,000 to 27,000 believed to live in Washington, Oregon and California, he said.

"Since that (Alaska and Canada) population is in the quarter-million to half-million range, what's the issue? Is this population truly at risk?" West said. "That's all we're asking for is: Let's take a relook."

What is the government likely to find out?

Spotted-owl researchers have found that some of the 15 populations studied across the Northwest are doing OK, but others, including several in Washington and British Columbia, "are declining rapidly," said Eric Forsman, a Forest Service researcher.

The latest large look at the birds suggested that their numbers are dropping, overall, by about 4 percent a year. That 1998 analysis would suggest extinction for the owls in 25 years. But it masks the fact researchers now are discovering that across large swaths of their ranges, the birds' numbers are dropping more rapidly.

"Some of the populations are doing reasonably well; that is, they don't look that different from a stable population," Forsman said. "Others look awful. They look like they're crashing."

Larry Irwin, a scientist whose work is supported in part by the timber industry, said recent work suggests that the owls face a trade-off when it comes to the old-growth and mature forests protected under the Northwest Forest Plan.

Although owls appear to survive better in old-growth forests, they appear to produce more young when they live in or around somewhat younger forests, he said.

"Large trees are important -- don't get me wrong," Irwin said. "But so are other things."

They include shorter "understory" plants and hardwoods such as oaks that support wood rats the owls can eat, for example, Irwin said. It seems as if older, denser tree stands protect the owls from bad weather and predators, maximizing survival. But the more open stands may produce more food, making it easier to raise owls to adulthood -- at the price of the occasional adult owl dying.

Still, Forsman said in general, the owls do better in old forests.

The murrelets' population trend probably won't be scientifically documented for another five years or so, said Kim Nelson, an Oregon State University wildlife ecologist.

A 1995 study suggested they were declining at the rate of 3 percent to 7 percent a year. To reproduce, murrelets must find branches in trees -- usually, but not always old-growth trees -- that are large and covered with moss where the birds can dig a little nest.

Although an overall population trend confirmed to scientifically rigorous standards is years away, "there is a lot of information showing that the birds are not doing well," Nelson said. "They don't seem to be replacing themselves very well."


Physical: About 18 inches long. Brown to gray with white spots. Wingspan reaches 42 inches.

Range: Mostly Pacific Coast forests from southwestern British Columbia to central California.

Lifespan: About 15 years.

Habits: Primarily nocturnal. Spend days in protected roost. Primary prey is northern flying squirrels, mice, woodrats and voles.

Requirements: Seem to thrive best in pockets of old growth or mature trees with access to younger forests that contain lots of prey.

Status: Threatened by habitat loss from logging and development. Predation by barred owls, great-horned owls and northern goshawks.


Physical: About 8 inches long. Top "marbled" with white spots in breeding season.

Range: Pacific Coast from Alaska's Aleutian Islands to central California.

Lifespan: Unknown.

Habits: Unusual seabird that nests as far as 60 miles inland, returning to ocean or Puget Sound daily to catch fish and other marine creatures.

Requirements: For nesting, they require large, mossy branches, often in old-growth Western hemlock. Many return to nest at the same tree.

Status: Threatened by habitat loss because of logging and development. Predation by jays, ravens, which thrive where forests are disturbed.

Related study: A Façade of Science: An analysis of the Jack Ward Thomas report, based on sworn testimony of members of the Thomas Committee. A report for the Association of O & C Counties & the Northwest Forest Resource Council.


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