Spotted Owls Get a Reprieve

Spotted owl. Courtesy USFWS.

The Obama Administration has taken action that would likely scrap a Bush Administration plan that decreases protections for the Pacific Northwest’s threatened spotted owls.

The new Administration asked a federal district court on March 31 for permission to withdraw Bush’s final northern spotted owl recovery plan and revision of the northern spotted owl critical habitat.

Bush’s Spotted Owl Recovery Plan cuts the size and number of protected reserves for the spotted owls, paving the way for more logging in old growth forests in Oregon, Washington and California.

The plan ignored scientific findings and weakened the protections of the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan, which decreased logging to protect owls and other species whose habitat has been threatened by over-logging. In a related decision, the Bush administration also cut the critical habitat designation for spotted owls by 1.6 million acres in 2008.

The result of the new administration’s actions could be that credible science will finally be incorporated into managing the federal forests of the Pacific Northwest.

You wouldn’t think the government’s consultation with science would be newsworthy, but the reality has been that the Bush Administration previously ignored science that constrained logging in Northwest forests. Under Bush, science was literally cut out of decisions regarding stewardship responsibilities for public forests in western Oregon, Washington and northern California — and that was a very long eight-year period.

Ignoring Science

Once a wildlife species is determined as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act, the government is supposed to develop a recovery plan to help protect the species and restore its populations. In the case of the spotted owl, the current administration has recognized that the Bush plan and critical habitat revision were polluted by political interference and a stubborn refusal to rely on the best available science.

The Bush Administration used the unscientific Spotted Owl Recovery Plan to aid in development of another federal management plan that would threaten the owls further by increasing logging in Oregon’s old growth forests by three times the current amount. It would also add more than 1,000 miles of damaging logging roads.

Lacking a basis of credible science, the Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR), which covers 2.5 million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands in western Oregon, is being legally challenged by conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, and even the Governor of Oregon.

The current versions of the Spotted Owl Recovery Plan and WOPR will likely cause unsustainable levels of logging in Northwest Forests and result in the degrading of streams, logging ancient forests, and degradation of habitat desperately needed for species headed for extinction, including the spotted owl and marbled murrelet.

The Obama Administration has indicated that it wants to talk to The Wilderness Society and the other challengers of the Spotted Owl Recovery Plan about their concerns, and the decisions regarding critical habitat developed under the Bush Administration. This is a strong signal that the federal agencies under the Obama Administration will be taking science more seriously as federal policies are developed and implemented.

The Obama Administration has much to clean up from the Bush Administration on the Northwest forest management issue. But the initial signals are good and we’re optimistic.

photo: Northern spotted owl. Courtesy USFWS.