New Spotted Owl Rescue Bid Gets Under Way
Federal, state officials announce two initiatives
Thursday, August 11, 2005
By ROBERT MCCLURE
OLYMPIA -- "Alarming" studies showing Washington's spotted owl population dropping fast prompted federal and state officials this week to announce two initiatives that could protect the bird and the oldgrowth forests where it thrives.
The focus of the timber wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the spotted owl was supposed to be saved mostly on federal land under a 1994 settlement hammered out by the Clinton administration.
But a casualty of that settlement was a plan produced by federal scientists to guide the owl's recovery. It was dropped by the Clinton administration amid the tension of the timber struggle.
This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said the Bush administration has authorized them to write a new owl-rescue blueprint. It's a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, whose protections were extended to the owl 15 years ago.
Meanwhile, the Washington Forest Practices Board launched a possible rewrite of state rules governing logging of private forests designated to supplement the federal save-the-owl push.
"It's really the job of the state to step forward and take a leadership role," said Pat McElroy, chairman of the forest board and a lieutenant of state Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland.
Both developments were announced at a two-day meeting here focusing on the owl's plight. The meeting wrapped up Wednesday.
Environmentalists and timber interests reacted with a wait-and-see attitude.
Timber industry representatives emphasized the role of an emerging threat to spotted owls: a big, nasty "bully," the barred owl, that has arrived in Washington in the last few decades, having flown across the Great Plains of Canada and then south. It is thought to be displacing spotted owls in at least some forests.
Other emerging threats include the West Nile virus, which kills birds, and the increasing likelihood of fires wiping out huge chunks of overgrown forest where owls live. "There isn't enough information on any of these factors to say, 'This is the smoking gun,' " said Josh Weiss, environmental affairs director for the Washington Forest Protection Association, a timber industry group. "Setting aside more habitat on private land is not going to arrest the decline."
Environmentalists were disappointed that the Forest Practices Board didn't take concrete action this week. "We need swift and strict timelines," Heath Packard of Audubon Washington told the forest board. "Your rules are not attaining their objectives. ... We need to address multiple threats with multiple fixes."
The owl's numbers have been dropping about 7 percent a year in Washington -- compared with between 2 percent and 3 percent annually in Oregon and California.
A draft of the federal recovery plan for spotted owls is due out by the end of next year. By law, it must set measurable objectives for rescuing the owl in Washington, California and Oregon.
"We'll make sure that biologically, it's sound," said Jim Michaels, endangered species coordinator at the Western Washington office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It will identify what's lacking, and what's good" about current policies.
At the state level, the Forest Practices Board, which governs logging on private lands, instructed staffers to engage in "shuttle diplomacy" between environmentalists, timber interests and others.
The board said it hoped a near-agreement reached earlier this year, before talks broke off, would form the basis of new rules that could be passed in November.
A key provision of the talks focused on what to do about owl nests that are abandoned. State researchers say about two out of every three spotted-owl nests known a decade ago are now vacant. Currently landowners can get permission to log those trees -- leaving a net decrease in owl-friendly forests.
The reasoning behind reversing that policy: Maybe if the habitat is left intact, it will be around to shelter spotted owls once they begin to rebound.
Scientists say that the presence of spotted owls in old forests is an indication that the ecosystem in which they live is healthy. It's a big reason the bird became a focus of environmentalists' early efforts to protect old-growth forests.
The amount of owl-friendly forest left "is statistically significantly below" what's required for the owls to survive, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife researcher John Pierce told the forest board. His yearlong examination of logging rates showed that some 59,000 acres of owl-sheltering forests were cut down between 1996 and 2004.
Steven Courtney, who headed a federally sponsored science review of the spotted owl's plight, said some, but not all, scientists are convinced the barred owl is running spotted owls out of their native forest homes.
"You're all looking glumly at me," Courtney told the forest board. "There is no good news in this. ... The options aren't great."
Members of the forest board close to the timber industry emphasized how the effects of the barred owl are outside the board's control
"We obviously have a crisis and we need to do something about it," said David Hagiwara, a board member who is deputy director at the Port of Port Angeles. "What I struggle with is what the role of this board is, and how we can help."
Responded John Mankowski, a forest board member who is a manager at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife: "I don't believe the effect of the barred owl is an excuse for us to not do our job. ... We've got to get busy."
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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