All About Owls

Spotted owl numbers are declining as aggressive barred owls encroach on their lands.© US Fish & Wildlife

Stung by criticism, the Bush administration recently announced that it is asking independent scientists to review the science behind a federal plan to increase logging in northern spotted owl habitat throughout the Pacific Northwest. The landmark Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 set aside millions of acres of old-growth forest as no-cut zones to protect habitat for the endangered spotted owl. In the meantime, though, despite the preservation of the habitat, spotted owl numbers are declining as aggressive barred owls, which are more adaptable and widespread—and are not endangered—encroach on their lands and drive them out.

"It’s a good-faith effort to establish an independent record of the best available science," says Joan Jewett, a USFWS spokesperson. "It will be open and transparent."

The decision comes as welcome news to environmentalists, who criticized the proposal initially put forth by the Bush administration last June. That plan called for lifting timber cutting restrictions across some 1.6 million acres of prime spotted owl habitat in currently protected, mostly old-growth Pacific Northwest forests. Most biologists and environmentalists familiar with the issue agree that the best ecological solution to the increased threat from barred owls is to increase, not reduce, the amount of habitat available to both birds, thus reducing displacement of the meeker spotted owls. "If the in-laws move in with you, you don’t make the house smaller; you make it bigger," forest activist Doug Heiken of the nonprofit Oregon Wild told AlterNet.

Meanwhile, the Interior Department’s Inspector General, at the request of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), is investigating possible political interference with the formation of the original plan, largely because embattled Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie McDonald was involved in the decision-making before her resignation last April. She was charged with changing scientific statements to align them with administration priorities on endangered species listing decisions.

The new, independent panel will review the science on the spotted owl, including the risks posed by barred owls and by loss of habitat to logging and wildfires, and report back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the federal agency responsible for managing endangered species, in February. The agency hopes to issue a final recovery plan for the spotted owls two months later.

Sources: Oregon Live; Alternet