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Spotted owl habitat slashed as population declines

Los Angeles Times
GRANTS PASS, ORE. — The Bush administration has decided the northern spotted owl can get by with less old growth forest habitat as it struggles to make its way off the threatened species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that the federal forest land designated as critical habitat for the owl in Washington, Oregon and Northern California would be cut by 23%, a reduction of 1.6 million acres. Critical habitat is a requirement of the Endangered Species Act and offers increased protections against logging.

Research shows that spotted owl numbers are dropping by 4% 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.

Conservation groups said the critical habitat designation and a new plan for restoring owl populations were contrary to the advice of leading scientists and crafted to fulfill a Bush administration promise to the timber industry to increase logging.

Both the plan and the habitat designation appear certain to be headed for court.

“This is a parting gift from the Bush administration to its timber friends,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle, a public interest environmental law firm that has been fighting for the owl for two decades. “It flies in the face of the science that says we need to protect more habitat, not less.”

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resources Council in Portland, said the recovery plan and critical habitat would make it more difficult to thin overgrown forests to reduce the risks to wildlife and to promote the old-growth characteristics the owls favor.

“After almost 20 years of relying on a static regulatory approach which has led to continual inaction and further decline of the owl, it is clear we should be using active management to improve the health of our forests and the spotted owl,” Partin said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this designation doubles down on a patently absurd approach.”

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 more than an 80% reduction in logging on federal lands, causing economic pain in the region, particularly in small logging towns.

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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