Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Peer Review Faults Spotted Owl Recovery Plan

An independent peer review conducted by the Society of Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists’ Union describes severe flaws in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's new draft recovery plan for the northern spotted owl. This species dwells in old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Such habitat has shrunken rapidly in recent decades.

The review found that the plan ignored twenty years of evidence regarding the owl's habitat needs and the causes of its decline. In particular, the plan's analysis shifts blame from logging in old growth forests to competition with barred owls.

By some estimates, between 80 percent and 90 percent of the region’s old-growth has already been cut.

In 1994, the Clinton administration released its Northwest Forest Plan, which restricted logging on roughly 7 million acres of federal lands. Though Clinton administration officials estimated that their plan would allow for the logging of about 1 billion board-feet of timber a year in Washington and Oregon, only about 300 million board-feet a year has been harvested.

Meanwhile, the population of the spotted owl, especially in its northern range, has continued to decline.

The draft recovery plan identified competition from the barred owl as the primary threat facing the spotted owl, not the loss of habitat as previously thought. The barred owl isn't native to the Northwest, but has moved west from the eastern United States as the forests have been logged. The barred owl is less selective in its habitat than the spotted owl and more aggressive than its cousin in competing for habitat and food.

But the unidentified scientists who conducted the peer review said basing the recovery plan on eliminating barred owls was unsupported by scientific studies.

“Habitat loss from timber harvest remains the sole threat for which there is extensive supporting scientific information,” wrote one scientist. “In contrast, little scientific information on potential adverse effects of barred owl range expansion is currently available. Primary emphasis on the barred owl is misplaced at this time because of a lack of supporting evidence.”
The report concludes that political meddling, especially from Julie MacDonald, a former high-ranking Interior official, may have skewed this draft of the recovery plan. Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter asking Secretary Dick Kempthorne to withdraw the current plan and write a new one based on the best available science.