The Northern Spotted Owl is getting a new level of protection across hundreds of miles of its range. The new Critical Habitat map for the controversial, threatened bird is drawing praise from environmentalists and condemnation from the timber industry.
Protections for the spotted owl are one reason logging has declined in the Northwest. The threatened bird has inspired new forest plans, countless lawsuits, research papers, and even an investigation into the political manipulation of federal science.
Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service has published a new map – called “Critical Habitat” – aimed at protecting the most important areas for recovering the owl. It replaces a discredited plan from 2008. The lead federal official on the Northern Spotted Owl, Paul Henson says the map touches much of the bird’s historic range.
“You know, the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State near the Canadian border down to the coast redwood zone in California, which represents a wide variety of habitat types – we wanted to at least represent that and capture that in Critical Habitat because that’s where the genetic and biological diversity of the species also resides.”
It’s more than nine and a half million acres in all – nearly twice as many acres as the Bush-era plan before it.
Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity sees the map as a big step forward. But Greenwald laments that state and private land from a draft map didn’t make the final.
“The spotted owl has continued to decline since it was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, and part of the reason for that is continued loss of habitat on private and state lands.
So it’s our view that the remaining old growth and mature forests on private and state land should be protected.”
Timber industry reps are relieved that private lands were removed. But Tom Partin with the American Forest Resource Council says having protections across nine million acres of federal lands is too much.
“We don’t think the demise, or the lessening of the population of the spotted owl is the result of not having enough land set aside. Quite frankly, we think it’s the product of catastrophic wildfires, the invasion of the barred owl, so simply setting aside more land for habitat isn’t the answer.”
The barred owl outcompetes the spotted owl for food and nest sites.
Henson with U.S. Fish and Wildlife agrees land alone isn’t the answer.
“Between the combination of habitat conservation and some barred owl management, I think the spotted owl has an excellent chance of recovering. If we don’t do anything with barred owls, I think all the science points to the spotted owl continuing to decline – regardless of what you do to habitat.”
Fish and Wildlife plans to share results next year of its experimental removal of the barred owl.
As for the Critical Habitat map, the timber industry is studying the basis for the map – with thoughts of a potential lawsuit.