President Obama didn’t just pardon a couple of turkeys at the White House yesterday, but unveiled a plan to nearly double protected habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl.
The birds have been classified as a threatened species since 1990, and environmental groups went to court to expand the 5.3 million acres dedicated to protecting the bird under the Bush administration. The federal government “finalized a science-based proposal identifying lands in the Pacific Northwest that are essential to the survival and recovery of the northern spotted owl.”
But the House Natural Resources Committee chairman — from one of the affected states, Washington — warned that the final critical habitat rule released by the Interior Department could further endanger thousands of jobs in an industry that has already taken a hit.
“The Obama Administration spent months working to revise a plan that was fatally flawed from the beginning. While this final rule must be fully reviewed, I remain very concerned that it will cost millions of taxpayer dollars and lock up large portions of federal land without addressing the root of the issue, the predatory Barred Owl,” said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the final designation is “based on the best available science … including feedback from experts, regional stakeholders, land management agencies and public comment.”
It reduces the amount of critical habitat in California, Oregon and Washington that was proposed last February by 4.2 million acres. All private lands and the significant majority of state lands identified in the proposal have been excluded from the final rule, according to Fish & Wildlife.
However, the designation can apply to any private or state lands if proposed activities involve federal funding or permitting.
“Expanding the Northern Spotted Owl’s critical habitat will further endanger the timber industry, the thousands of jobs that the industry supports, and forest health,” Hastings said.
Saying that the overall spotted owl population is declining at a rate of 2.9 percent per year, the service designated 9.29 million acres of critical habitat on federal land and 291,570 acres on state land.
There are about 3,000 to 5,000 spotted owls in the region, and conservationists say their numbers have dropped 40 percent in the past 25 years — a time period in which the owl became a poster bird for industry vs. environmentalists.
“The BLM and the USFWS have worked together to try to find the sweet spot – providing for the required conservation of the northern spotted owl and recognizing the importance of BLM lands to the social fabric of western Oregon. This rule is a direct result of those interactions” said Jerome Perez, Oregon/Washington state director for the Bureau of Land Management.
“We applied the best available science to identify the remaining habitat essential to the spotted owl’s recovery – and to ensure that our recovery partners have the clarity and flexibility they need to make effective land management decisions,” said Robyn Thorson, director of the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region. “We fully support conservation strategies and forest treatments that restore the health and natural dynamics of entire forest ecosystems to sustain all their many values.”
Hastings stressed that more than timber jobs are at stake with the new rules, though — and warned that the owl could be hurt even more by ostensible measures to save it by restrictions on cutting dangerous forest growth.
“The 2012 wildfire season has been one of the worst on record. Washington state alone saw over 300,000 acres burned, including over 35,000 acres of current and proposed spotted owl habitat,” the chairman said. ”The Forest Service has also reported that the additional loss of habitat from post-fire beetle infestation would ‘adversely impact the spotted owl population.’”