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The Register-Guard, August 13, 2008

Wildlife coalition sues over owl plan
By Jason Pesick

FLORENCE — A coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Tuesday, arguing the agency has exposed the northern spotted owl in the Elliott State Forest to danger.

The agency, given the task ofprotecting the northern spotted owl because of its status as threatened on the Endangered Species List, should rethink a plan that has led to a 63 percent decline in the bird’s habitat since it was enacted in 1995, the lawsuit contends in U.S. District Court.

The 93,000-acre forest spans Coos and Douglas counties. It is a state forest but requires consultation with the federal government because of the owl populations, which once occupied 35 sites throughout the forest.

In 1995, the Oregon Department of Forestry created a plan with Fish & Wildlife that allows for the removal of 22,000 acres of habitat via logging during a 60-year period, which would displace 24 of the 35 owl sites during that time frame, said Josh Laughlin, conservation director for the Cascadia Wildlands Project, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

That plan should be revisited, according to the lawsuit, because it fails to account for two things, primarily: a 2003 study that found the owl habitat already had reached the predicted 60-year low, and a new incursion of the aggressive barred owl, which is displacing spotted owl nests.

The Endangered Species Act requires that agencies re-evaluate their plans when new information comes into play, Laughlin said. The barred owls and the decline in spotted owl sites should qualify, he said.

“Spotted owls are quickly blinking off the map on the Elliott State Forest,” Laughlin said. “We’ve drawn attention to this with Fish & Wildlife, and it’s fallen on deaf ears.”

The forest is a valuable revenue resource, with 90 percent of the logging there contributed to the common school fund. The revenue has averaged $14 million annually during the past decade, said Jim Young, district forester of the Coos District, which includes the Elliott.

Young said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit, but he took issue with the notion that 63 percent of the owl’s sites are “lost.” Some of the spots were close enough to the edge of the forest that it’s unclear whether the owls resided there or outside the Elliott.

He did acknowledge the growth in barred owl population.

The state and the federal government have been revising the forest’s management plan during the past eight years, Young added. A draft is due to be released sometime this summer, though Young said he doesn’t anticipate a resulting reduction in logging, but an analysis of what kinds of structures are preferred by animals such as the spotted owl and ways to preserve them.

“It’ll be a more flexible plan,” Young said.

Copyright © 2008 — The Register-Guard

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton