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When Will the Fish & Wildlife Service Give a Hoot for Spotted Owls?

Perhaps no other species symbolizes the conflict over logging in the Pacific Northwest more than the northern spotted owl. This medium-sized, forest-dwelling raptor has been credited with shutting down the logging industry in the 1990s and with shouldering the responsibility of conservation for hundreds of species that share its old-growth forest habitat. Since then, efforts to recover the owl have been mired in controversy, including political interference in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) during the Bush administration that would have promoted more logging on federal lands to save the owl. At the time, scientific societies such as The Wildlife Society, American Ornithologists’ Union, and Society for Conservation Biology each criticized these logging plans disguised as recovery actions. In 2008, there was great hope that the incoming Obama administration’s redo of the recovery plan and critical habitat determination would lead to a return to sound science in endangered species decisions. And while there have been strides made by the agency to improve the science of owl recovery, the Service continues to endorse logging measures that it too believes will save the owl from extinction. The Obama administration’s Fish & Wildlife Service has labeled these new measures “ecoforestry” or “active management.“ However, this approach to owl recovery has at least three flaws: First, the Service assumes that fire is a threat to the owl and that this threat can be curtailed by aggressive thinning (logging) to reduce trees and shrubs that fuel fires in the owls’ critical habitat. However, studies on owl use of burned landscapes actually show the owl will use burned areas for nesting and foraging unless logging degrades them after forest fires. In ignoring these findings, the agency violates the first principle of wildlife management – observe the species in its habitat before you draw inferences about what it needs. Second, the Service is concerned that the incidence and intensity of fire is increasing in dry forest regions where the owl occurs and this is justification for more logging.  However, recent studies have documented the severity of wildfires in the owls’ dry forest regions has not changed in decades. In northern California, there was an increase in the acreage burned in the last century but not the severity of fires.  In dry forested regions, the owl depends on a mixture of old forests for nesting (the “bedroom”) and recently burned areas for foraging (the “pantry”). This mixing of burned and unburned areas is precisely the type of habitat mosaic produced by wildfires and the increase in acres burnt may be beneficial in creating this ideal mix. Third, the Service assumes that thinning is the lesser of two evils (fire being the other). However, a recent study currently in review uses computer modeling to project wildfire and thinning effects on owl habitat over a 40-year period. The main findings show that the loss of owl habitat from thinning far exceeds that of forest fires because the amount of forest that would need to be thinned to influence fire behavior far exceeds that which would be altered by the fires themselves. The Service should adopt a page out of its own playbook on how it is correctly handling the threat of barred owls, a competing and more aggressive cousin of the spotted owl. To the agency’s credit, it has put forth a rigorous experimental design on determining whether removing barred owls (by shooting them) will benefit spotted owls before promoting widespread control efforts. No such design, however, has been put forth to test thinning effects on owls before ramping up the program and so the agency has chosen to log first, ask later. When it comes to owls, the Service should give a hoot about conservation. This is precisely because as goes the owl, so too does clean air, clean water, and hundreds of other species that its old-forests uniquely support. The ESA directs the Service to conserve the ecosystems upon which a listed species like the owl depends. Fish & Wildlife Service should remember this fundamental tenet of sound planning by doing proper experimentation on controversial measures before putting them in place, particularly because the owl was listed in the first place due to logging.  Too much is at stake in this decision:  the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest are one of the few remaining strongholds for this unique and valuable ecosystem in the contiguous United States.