Reviewers rip spotted owl recovery plan

Reviewers rip spotted owl recovery plan

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS's) draft recovery plan for the Pacific Northwest's beleaguered northern spotted owl population has been lambasted, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. According to FWS-ordered and independent peer reviews released last month, the plan "failed to make use of the best-available science" and "selectively cited from the best-available science to justify a reduction in habitat protection."

The reviews?one jointly written by the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists' Union and another from The Wildlife Society?both cited similar flaws in the recovery plan's selection and use of scientific data. Both also concluded that the plan would fail to recover the northern spotted owl and, to the contrary, potentially result in eventual need to up-list the species' official status from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The draft plan includes two management options that depart from the habitat provisions of the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) that, for more than a decade, have proven effective in slowing the species' precipitous decline. Both proposed options would significantly reduce (by greater than 30 percent) the acreage of late-successional reserves (LSRs), which collectively conserve about 7 million acres of old-growth forest managed under the NWFP.

Northern spotted owls are dependent on old-growth forest habitat. The species was listed as federally threatened in 1990 due to the destruction of more than two thirds of its native range by logging. Spotted owl pairs need large amounts of land for hunting and nesting and are generally intolerant of habitat disturbance.

In addition to reducing the amount of available spotted owl habitat, the plan further deviates from current management by placing primary importance on reducing the potential, though little understood, competition between barred owls and spotted owls. This approach, according to the reviews, is "not justified from either scientific or conservation perspectives" and cannot be "expected to offset the significant reduction in habitat protection currently afforded by the NWFP."

The plan's conspicuous diversion from the NWFP's successful spotted owl recovery provisions has amplified the conservation community's criticism of the Department of the Interior's (DOI's) record of political interference in recent ESA implementation. In testimony before Congress regarding the draft spotted owl recovery plan process, Dominick DellaSala, Executive Director of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy and a member of the FWS Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Team, stated that: "While oversight of agency documents by Department officials in itself is not unusual, the level of oversight in this case clearly shifted the power dynamics between the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which led to a plan that is not based on best-available science."

Documents from DellaSala's testimony indicated that a federal oversight committee (high-level DOI and Agriculture Department appointees charged with reviewing and revising the draft recovery plan) rejected a September 29, 2006, draft from the recovery team as too "restrictive"for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This original draft of the recovery plan noted that utilizing fixed LSRs managed under the NWFP was the most "scientifically credible approach for recovering the threatened Northern Spotted Owl." However, the oversight committee directed the recovery team to develop a "reorganization and emphasis rewrite" of the plan that would "emphasize new science. . .and de-emphasize past science," allowing for a plan that did not include fixed habitat reserves and that was flexible enough "to be acceptable to the Forest Service and BLM."

The FWS also received direction from the oversight committee to "flip and switch" the presentation of threats to the spotted owl in the draft plan by minimizing the importance of habitat loss and placing more emphasis on barred owl competition. The recovery team was also directed to "indicate [the barred owl] was [the] only threat given priority number 1. . .and summarize the habitat threats discussions into less than a page."

"The apparent misuse and ?cherry-picking' of scientific research represented in the present draft of the recovery plan is particularly disturbing considering that the northern spotted owl is one of the most studied species ever listed under the Endangered Species Act," said DellaSala. "The political interference documented in this case led to misapplication of habitat provisions under both options and is clearly a case of science taking a back seat to politics."

To view the 2007 Draft Recovery Plan for the northern spotted owl and its peer review, go to

September 08, 2007