ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Interior protects 9.6M acres as spotted owl habitat, touts 'ecological' logging

The Obama administration today released a final rule setting aside 9.6 million acres of critical habitat for the federally threatened northern spotted owl, a species whose population continues to slide despite decades of conservation efforts.

The final rule reduces the amount of lands in California, Oregon and Washington proposed for protections under a February draft by about 4.3 million acres and excludes all private lands and the vast majority of state lands. But the final habitat plan is still a near doubling, by acreage, of the George W. Bush administration's 2008 critical habitat plan.

In total, 9.3 million acres of mostly Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands and about 300,000 acres of state lands, mostly in Oregon, were included in the final rule.

And like Interior's draft proposal, the final rule promotes "ecologically sustainable" logging that federal scientists argue will strengthen the owl's habitat by girding forests against pests and severe wildfires.

"We applied the best available science to identify the remaining habitat essential to the spotted owl's recovery and to ensure that our recovery partners have the clarity and flexibility they need to make effective land management decisions," said Robyn Thorson, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Region. "We fully support conservation strategies and forest treatments that restore the health and natural dynamics of entire forest ecosystems to sustain all their many values."

The agency said critical habitat designations on state lands in Oregon will have "almost no impact" on either the state's management of those lands or timber harvests.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies must consult with FWS before authorizing or funding activities that could harm critical habitats. Opponents say critical habitat can crimp economic development, particularly timber harvests, and lay the groundwork for lawsuits.

But Jerome Perez, BLM's state director in Oregon and Washington, said today's rule represents a "sweet spot" that will balance conservation of the owl with the needs of timber-dependent Northwest communities.

Today's final rule is at least the third time since 1992 that Interior has designated critical habitat for spotted owls. A 1992 rule designated 6.9 million acres of critical habitat, all on federal lands, but was revised as a result of a 2003 settlement agreement with the timber industry.

The Bush administration in 2008 finalized a revised critical habitat designation of 5.3 million acres, but that plan was later discarded by the Obama administration amid scientific and legal concerns.

Today's habitat plan comes as the bird's population in Washington, Oregon and California disappears at a rate of nearly 3 percent annually, leaving 40 percent fewer owls than there were in the late 1980s. Populations have been nearly wiped out in British Columbia.

While clear-cutting of the owl's old-growth habitat is the historical culprit, biologists, loggers and policymakers say barred owls, which are larger and more agressive, have emerged as a greater threat (Greenwire, Aug. 13).

The non-native barred owls migrated west in the late 1950s and have spread south from British Columbia into Washington, Oregon and California. They are displacing or breeding with the native bird and consume many of the same foods -- wood rats, flying squirrels and red tree voles.

Interior is also pursuing a parallel experiment to shoot or capture up to several thousand barred owls to aid spotted owl recovery.

Ecological forestry

The logging component of the habitat rule has been controversial from the start.

Groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, American Bird Conservancy and Cornell Lab for Ornithology in July commended the agency's use of modeling to identify proposed acreage but said that active management in critical habitat is not supported by the best available science.

It was unclear at publication time whether tweaks had been made to the logging language in the final rule.

"Our concern is it's giving a pretty broad license for on-the-ground management," said Brett Hartl, senior policy fellow for the Society for Conservation Biology in Washington, D.C.

The draft rule gave the BLM and Forest Service leeway to authorize logging projects that could harm the owl's critical habitat, Hartl said.

"They've never done this before in critical habitat, where they've had such detailed instructions to the agencies," Hartl said. "It's troublesome because that's not the purpose of critical habitat under the ESA. Critical habitat is a mapping exercise primarily based on the conservation needs of the species."

The group last week urged the Obama administration to carefully evaluate the trade-offs of excluding lands from its draft critical habitat rule, arguing the agency should follow the criteria outlined in a 2008 Interior solicitor's memo. If private lands are excluded from the final rule, they must include strong habitat conservation plans to ensure they will be managed appropriately, he said.

"If the Fish and Wildlife Service has excluded millions of acres, their burden should be very great to show that those conservation benefits somehow don't outweigh the exclusions," he said.

The American Forest Resource Council, which represents loggers and mills in the Northwest, said the draft critical habitat plan continued to ignore the threats of barred owls and catastrophic wildfire on spotted owl populations.

In comments on the draft plan, the groups said Interior's methodology for determining critical habitat is "incapable of determining what areas were 'occupied at the time of listing' and/or are 'essential for the conservation of the species,'" and therefore runs afoul of the Endangered Species Act.

"Unfortunately, both the proposed designation and the draft economic analysis are fatally flawed and would not pass muster under the statutory mandate provided by Congress," Ann Burns, vice president of the Portland, Ore.-based AFRC, said in prepared remarks to Interior in June. "Do not allow the deadline which the agency itself asked the district court to impose to deter you from doing what is needed to make these documents legally sufficient."