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Did Fish & Wildlife Service Deliver a Turkey on Spotted Owl Critical Habitat?

By Dominick DellaSalla The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced today its long-anticipated critical habitat designation for the embattled northern spotted owl. Well, sort of! The agency embargoed its press release to reporters and at the time of this writing has not released the 800-page plus document for scientific or public scrutiny. Reaction by conservation groups was swift based on limited information in the Administration’s press release and a Greenwire story. As a former member of the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s spotted owl recovery team (2006-08), where I personally witnessed political interference in owl habitat protections under the Bush administration, naturally, I remain cautiously optimistic. I also have commented previously on the Administration’s log-first-ask-questions-later approach to “active management” in owl critical habitat. So from what I can tell and based on my prior conversations with the agency, today’s announcement signals a mixed bag on owl recovery and critical habitat. The Turkey – On the one hand, the agency excluded all private and most state lands where the biggest decline in spotted owls is underway. The agency continues to approve the “taking” of owl habitat and nest sites without sufficient measures to prevent ongoing losses, particularly in the California redwoods, which could be the last stronghold for spotted owls as populations remain relatively abundant (but declining). The agency also continues to endorse active management apparently in response to a February 28 Presidential Memorandum directing it to include forest thinning in critical habitat measures. Scientific studies show that thinning is detrimental to closed-canopy prey species like flying squirrels and red tree voles, the main menu items for the owl over large portions of its range. Further, recent studies document resilience across all three subspecies of spotted owls to most forest fires, which calls into question the stated objective of Fish & Wildlife Service to actively manage forests to reduce fire losses to owl habitat and improve forest health. The Cranberries – On the other hand, the agency deserves credit for upping the ante on the Bush administration’s failed politically motivated attempts at reducing habitat protections for the owl. The plan does have 9.6 million acres in designated critical habitat, which is a modest improvement over the 5.3 million acres of the 2008 rescinded Bush plan. By modest, what I mean to say is even though these lands are designated critical habitat, the level of active management inside them may render protections moot. This is especially the case on State of Oregon lands where the Administration designated critical habitat but indicated that it won’t change the way the State aggressively logs its forests. In the coming weeks, there will be much scrutiny, some praise, and disappointment in wading through the final critical habitat document. In the meantime, it’s now up to the agency to show that it’s up to the task of enforcing the protective measures in the June 2012 owl recovery plan, increase enforcement of owl “take” on state and private lands, and fund studies on how active management will affect a species that was originally listed because of too much logging in its old forest habitat. To do otherwise creates the impression that a “sweet spot” exists between owl recovery and logging when, in fact, there may not be.