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Experts: Spotted owl plan won't work

The Bush administration's plans for saving the northern spotted owl from extinction have flunked a peer review by scientists.
Spotted Owl
A California spotted owl is shown inside the Tahoe National Forest in California in this 2004 file photo.  Debra Reid / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration's plans for saving the northern spotted owl from extinction have flunked a peer review by scientists.

Under a contract with the administration, the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists' Union said the government did not consider all the best available science, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, before making room for more logging in old-growth forests.

The organizations reviewed a draft recovery plan that rates the invasion of the barred owl into spotted owl territory a greater threat than habitat loss, as well as a proposal to reduce critical habitat for the owl by 22 percent.

The two proposals are key to plans to bring back clearcut logging in old-growth forests on U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests in Western Oregon, aimed at increasing timber production and restoring timber revenue to county governments.

The reviewers of the recovery plan said there appears to be a scientific consensus that the plans would not only fail to bring back owl populations but also would result in downgrading its status from threatened to endangered.

The bird has suffered over the long term from logging in its old-growth forest habitat, and in the last few years it has faced a threat from an invasive relative, the barred owl.

'Best available science' not used
"The recovery team failed to make use of the best available science and, in fact, appears to have selectively cited from the available science to justify a reduction in habitat protection," they wrote. "Based on current information, far too much emphasis is placed on the adverse effects of barred owl range expansion."

A separate review of the proposal to reduce critical habitat for the owl by 22 percent earned an even harsher review, expressed in a letter from society North American Section President Reed Noss and society policy director John Fitzgerald in a letter dated Friday to Fish and Wildlife Field Supervisor Kemper McMaster.

"Our main recommendation to (Fish and Wildlife) is to scrap the draft recovery plan, convene a panel of independent scientists and ecologists to redo the recovery plan, and place on hold related forest policy decisions ... until a new recovery plan is completed based on the best available science," they wrote.

The spotted owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 due primarily to heavy logging in the forests where it nests and feeds. Lawsuits from conservation groups led to a reduction of more than 80 percent in logging on federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Working with the timber industry under a lawsuit settlement, the Bush administration has been trying to increase logging levels, but has repeatedly been stymied by court rulings.

Meanwhile, owl numbers have continued to decline. The new threat from the barred owl has led to arguments from the timber industry that it is no longer necessary to protect so much old growth if there are no owls living in it.

Political pressure alleged
Dominic DellaSala of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, a member of the recovery team, said the peer review's findings supported his contention, voiced in testimony before Congress, that members of the Bush administration exerted political pressure on them to produce a recovery plan that blamed barred owls more than loss of habitat for the owl's decline.

"To be in compliance with (The Endangered species Act) you have to have a recovery plan based on the best available science," he said. "The peer review said it's not based on the best available science. Either they follow up on that problem or it will take some Congressional action."

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett said the peer reviews would be taken into consideration along with other comments from the public before producing a final owl recovery plan and critical habitat designation by next year.

She added that the chairman of the recovery team, Fish and Wildlife Deputy Regional Director Dave Wesley, had met face to face with and been on conference calls with an administration oversight group, but that the team did not alter the recovery plan as a result.

The plans were also reviewed independently by The Wildlife Society, a leading professional organization of wildlife biologists, which also found the recovery plan so deeply flawed that it should be scrapped and a new one developed from scratch.

"We are drawn to the conclusion that (the recovery plan) will not achieve the basic interest of spotted owl conservation," the society's reviewers wrote. "We come to this conclusion because the spotted owl is one of the most studied species ever listed under the (Endangered Species Act), yet there is no reliance in this plan on the breadth and depth of the information available to create a scientifically credible plan."