Environmental groups go to court over the spotted owl
A large alliance of environmental groups is joining its foes, the timber industry, in opposing a federal blueprint for protecting the northern spotted owl, the threatened Northwest bird that has stood in the way of logging federal lands.
The timber industry argued in a lawsuit filed last month in Washington, D.C., that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to designate too much land as critical habitat for the owl. On Monday, 18 wildlife and conservation groups asked to intervene in the lawsuit, arguing the Fish and Wildlife Service isn't designating enough critical habitat.
The standoff highlights the role of the spotted owl as a key tool in the argument over how much of the Northwest forests should remain easily accessible to logging. Owls favor large, older forests that were a key source of Northwest timber.
While logging on federal land has fallen sharply since the 1990s, owl numbers are still declining. Scientists increasingly believe that's also because of invading barred owls, a more aggressive cousin of the spotted owl that has arrived from the East.
Conservation groups argue that makes protecting owl habitat all the more important.
The 18 groups also argue that a new federal recovery plan for the spotted owl -- closely linked to critical habitat -- isn't based on the best available science and was undermined by political meddling. The groups include Oregon Wild, the Audubon Society of Portland, Sierra Club and the Gifford Pinchot Task Force.
"We think the recovery plan is fatally flawed for its failure to use the best science, the misuse of the science it did use and the political interference that marked the whole process," said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice lawyer representing the groups.
They're asking for a court order "to ensure that northern spotted owls and their habitat do not suffer irreparable harm pending resolution of the merits of this action."
The Fish and Wildlife Service revised its critical habitat for the northern spotted owl as part of a deal between the Bush administration and the timber industry to resolve an earlier industry lawsuit. The revision reduced the amount of critical habitat from about 6.9 million acres to 5.3 million acres.
But the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group in Portland, and other timber companies and groups were not satisfied. They argue the remaining critical habitat protections will unnecessarily hamper efforts to thin overgrown forests before they burn up in wildfires, wiping out the owl habitat for decades.
"This is going to do nothing but make the populations go down even more," said Tom Partin, president of the Resource Council.
While logging is not prohibited in critical habitat, it must clear extra procedural hurdles before it can proceed. The Resource Council argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service designated lands as critical habitat even when they do not currently provide good habitat for owls.
While the timber group took issue with critical habitat, it did not challenge the federal owl-recovery plan like the conservation groups did. They contend the recovery plan fails to protect enough habitat and enough owls for the species to recover and that the species will probably continue to decline.
The plan "fails to utilize the best scientific data that require protecting more spotted owl critical habitat at a time when the species is in rapid decline and is facing increased threats," the groups say in court documents.
They also say the plan ignores the scientific underpinnings of the Northwest Forest Plan, a 1994 attempt by the Clinton administration to provide for wildlife while also turning out a reliable timber supply.
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