Thursday, August 14, 2008

Less Critical Habitat for Spotted Owls

The Bush administration has reduced the designated critical habitat for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) by 23%, from 6.9 million acres to 5.3 million acres. Northern spotted owls face a variety of threats, from a possible lack of genetic diversity to competition from barred owls (Strix varia) to blood parasites. Their primary, and perhaps only, habitat consists of old-growth forests. Therefore, spotted owls are particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation.

In such a context, logging in or near northern spotted owl habitat would be unwise. Yet there is consistent pressure, from the timber industry and from local governments, to reduce critical habitat and expand logging. The current reduction came as a settlement to a lawsuit from the timber industry, which wants to log on federal lands. The Bush administration has largely favored the industry approach, seeing the thinning or cutting of forests as a way to maintain "healthy forests." In this case, it seems that the owl's disappearance from some segments of old growth forest is being used as an excuse to turn those areas over to loggers.

"All you're doing is ... protecting more habitat for the barred owl," said Mickey, whose group represents the timber industry....

The plan is meant to help a lot of old-growth species, but the amount of protected federal land was set with spotted owls in mind. If the birds are gone, it could be easier to whittle away at those areas, said Chuck Meslow, a retired federal wildlife biologist who helped craft the 1994 plan.

It's on Washington's state and private lands where the decline of spotted owls could make the most immediate difference.

There, logging is often allowed in older forests, except in places with spotted-owl nests. Fewer owls could mean fewer places off-limits to chain saws.

The state Department of Natural Resources in 2005 put a moratorium on lifting protections for areas around abandoned spotted-owl nests. That was spurred partly by concerns that barred owls were driving them from prime habitat.

The moratorium is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
The timber industry and their friends in the Bush administration promote killing barred owls as an alternative to preserving old growth habitat for northern spotted owls. The barred owls frequently outcompete northern spotted owls, primarily in habitats that have been disturbed or fragmented, as barred owls can adapt to a greater variety of habitat types. In this regard, reducing the number of barred owls may make sense in some areas. However, shooting barred owls is not a substitute for habitat protection. Unless there is a commitment to protect existing northern spotted owl nests, and to protect additional old-growth forests to allow the population to grow, shooting the barred owls is just senseless killing.