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For Immediate Release, December 18, 2012

Contact: Taylor McKinnon, (928) 310-6713

New Recovery Plan for Mexican Spotted Owls in Southwest Weakens Endangered Owl's Protections

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a final revised “recovery plan” late Monday for Mexican spotted owls, replacing the threatened bird’s original 1995 recovery plan. Recovery plans are intended to provide a framework for survival, recovery and ultimately delisting under the Endangered Species Act.

Unfortunately, the new plan for owls instead eliminates key logging restrictions in protected habitat, sets forth habitat “guidelines” in place of enforceable standards, and renews hollow promises to monitor owl populations and management responses, which for 17 years the Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service unlawfully failed to do under the owl’s original plan.

“This new plan provides a blueprint for bureaucratic discretion, not owl recovery,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has fought for many years to increase protection for the beleaguered owls. “It relies on monitoring that the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service routinely refuse to do to justify logging and weaker protections in owl habitat. This plan gives the Forest Service’s old-guard foresters the logging latitude they’ve been seeking for years, and it does so at the owl’s expense — and at the expense of the majority of Americans who want our wildlife preserved instead of pillaged.”

Facing data gaps, the owl’s original 1995 plan created a two-pronged, protect-while-learn recovery approach. It limited logging in protected habitat while calling for monitoring to better understand the status and trends of owl populations and their response to management. After 17 years of monitoring failures, the same data gaps remain.

“The greatest threat to these rare and beautiful owls is the feds’ refusal to implement their recovery program, a problem that’s been constant since 1995,” said McKinnon. “Weakening recovery provisions may solve accountability problems for bureaucrats, but it’s life or death for these owls. Frankly it’s a disgrace that, after almost two decades, we still don’t know the size or trends of owl populations or how they respond to forest management.”

Citing wildfire threats, the new plan strikes tree-size logging limits in protected activity centers and provides “guidelines” and “desired conditions” instead of enforceable standards for minimum habitat conditions. It admits that “empirical data on the effects of thinning and other mechanical forest treatments on Mexican spotted owls are nonexistent” and downplays and mischaracterizes peer-reviewed science showing that owls continue to occupy, breed and forage in recently burned territories.

Owl recovery plan rollbacks mirror other plans to eliminate wildlife protections from national forests in Arizona and New Mexico. Draft land- and resource-management plans for national forests in Arizona would all but eliminate most enforceable standards protecting wildlife and their habitat. Because those plans would rely on the owl’s new recovery plan for guidance, weakened protections therein will be translated into regional national forest management.

One of the largest owls in North America with a wingspan of 45 inches, the Mexican spotted owl is a shy bird, chestnut-brown with white and brown spots on its abdomen, back and head. The species needs cliffs, riparian forests and old-growth forests of Douglas fir, oak and ponderosa pine; it nests in tree cavities, bird-of-prey nests, caves and cliff ledges. Mexican spotted owls have the largest geographic distribution of all spotted owl subspecies, extending from the four-corner states into west Texas and Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains, but nearly 90 percent of known owl territories exist on Forest Service lands in Arizona and New Mexico.

Mexican spotted owls are threatened by climate change, livestock grazing, logging, development, mining, motorized recreation and wildfire. Their distribution is shaped by the distribution of forest land that has been protected from destruction and logging: Even-aged timber harvest systems that replace old growth spell lost habitat and starvation for the birds. Domestic livestock grazing has devastated the rare and invaluable riparian forests of the Southwest, and great horned owl predation, low reproductive success and low juvenile survival rates also threaten this owl’s future.

Ever since the owl was listed as threatened in 1993 — more than three years after the Center petitioned for the species — logging interests have constantly sought to undermine its protection. Two years after the Center won a suit designating critical habitat for the owl in 1995, a countersuit by timber proponents stripped the bird of protected forest living space. The Center filed suit again in 1999, only to have the Service designate habitat in 2001 that left out the areas most important for the bird’s recovery.

Finally, after another Center lawsuit and despite resistance from the Department of the Interior, the owl’s critical habitat was expanded to more than 8 million acres. Thanks to Center intervention in a livestock-industry challenge of that decision, the designation still stands today. Subsequent litigation has challenged refusal by the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor owl populations as required by its recovery plan and biological opinions.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 450,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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