The northern spotted owl was first designated as a threatened species in 1990, during the first Bush administration. At the time, the owl became a symbol of a conflict between people and wild animals and between the economy and the environment. Almost two decades later, the timber wars have quieted, but the owl is still in decline.
Currently there are between 3,000 and 5,000 northern spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, and the population continues to fall about 3.7 percent each year. The owls face threats from various sources, mostly connected with habitat destruction. They prefer old growth forests, which were logged extensively in the 1980s and 1990s. A secondary threat comes from the westward spread of the barred owl. Barred owls are larger and can thrive in a broader array of habitats.
The timber industry has seized upon evidence that the northern spotted owl may not always need old growth forest to push for a less restrictive recovery plan that emphasizes competition with the barred owl.
Timber industry officials say this is a good first step. They also applaud new elements in the proposed plan: emphasizing that the barred owl, not habitat loss from logging, is the prime threat to the spotted owl, and giving local and regional US Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management officials more say about where habitat should be protected.Because of lingering concerns over political interference from the White House, conservationists outside the government remain skeptical of the new approach.
"This plan misses the mark in many respects, and it needs to be redone," Dr. DellaSala writes in his critique of the proposed recovery options. "Implementation of the plan is likely to increase extinction risks for the owl."A new recovery plan and a new designation of critical habitat have been proposed, but so far have not been approved. Among other things, the administration seeks to reduce the amount of critical habitat from 6.9 million acres to 5.3 million acres, reduce restrictions on logging and other activities, and introduce methods for managing the threat posed by barred owls. A draft of the plan is available for comment online.
DellaSala, who was on the team developing a recovery plan, recently told Congress that "what was supposed to be a science-based plan was derailed by a pattern of political interference" by political appointees in the Bush administration.
"The unfortunate part of this thing is that this administration has chosen to reignite the timber wars, and the next administration that comes in is going to be inheriting a train wreck," he says in an interview. "In a nutshell, this is the key domino for toppling the protections in the Northwest Forest Plan, the old-growth protections."