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Panel: Nature poses more risk to owls

Some scientists find that logging is not the primary harm to habitat of the northern spotted owl

Wednesday, June 23, 2004
VANCOUVER -- Natural events such as wildfires eliminated more forest habitat of the threatened northern spotted owl on public land during the past decade than logging did, researchers reported Tuesday.

The finding emerged as a panel of scientists commissioned by the government to review the outlook for the owl presented its results during a public meeting at Washington State University in Vancouver.

It illustrates how sharply protections for the owl have curtailed logging of federal forests in the Northwest and the rising influence other forces may have over the owl's future.

The 2002 Biscuit fire in Southwest Oregon was responsible for about two-thirds of the owl habitat eliminated by natural events on public land from 1994 to 2003, said Richard Bigley, a forestry consultant on the panel.

Biologists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Portland will fold the results into a recommendation on whether the spotted owl warrants continued protection under the Endangered Species Act. That will go to the Bush administration, which will issue a decision.

A court settlement between the administration and the timber industry set a Nov. 15 deadline for the decision, which is seen by many as a crucial test of whether Northwest forests now reserved for wildlife may be freed for logging. That means a conclusion is unlikely until after the November election, said Barry Mulder of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The science panel said logging of the owl's forest habitat poses less threat to the species than a decade ago, but other dangers including an influx of aggressive barred owls, disease and wildfires in overgrown forests make its survival uncertain.

Members suggested removing barred owls from a limited area of forest they have moved into as part of an experiment to more clearly measure their effect on spotted owls.

Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor and an author of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which ended much of the region's public lands logging in part to protect the spotted owl, said the species seems destined to disappear from much of its original range. That's discouraging, he said, given the vast acreage set aside for wildlife under the 1994 plan, a move that reshaped the region's longtime logging economy.

"It's very clear that alone is not sufficient," Franklin said.

Martin Cody, chairman of the owl science panel and a biology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the seven researchers agreed that a possible scenario given the new array of threats is extinction of the spotted owl.

"We think that's plausible," he said.

The grim outlook comes even though logging of forests preferred by the owl, cited in 1990 as a chief reason for its federal protection, has declined sharply since the Northwest Forest Plan took effect. Logging at the time was blamed for removing two-thirds of owl habitat since 1950.

Timber industry officials said the results show that forests need to be managed with some logging to keep them useful to owls, while environmental activists said it's more important to protect owl habitat in light of the newly emerging threats.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

Copyright 2004 Oregon Live. All Rights Reserved.




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