The controversial recovery plan recommended the elimination of forest reserves on over half of the owl’s range in order to promote widespread thinning in forests used by the owl, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The authors of the study, published in the scientific journal “Conservation Biology,” concluded that the Spotted Owl Recovery Plan was “inaccurate and misleading” about the severity of fires on spotted owl habitat.
The study, which focused on the naturally fire-adapted “dry forests” of the eastern Cascades and Klamath regions of California, Oregon, and Washington found that the recovery plan greatly overestimated the extent of intense fires where most of the trees are killed affecting old-growth forests used by spotted owls and hundreds of other species.
Instead, they found that due to forest growth and maturation old-growth forest habitat is increasing at a rate of seven to 14 times faster than it is being affected by intense fire in the eastern Cascades, and five to 11 times faster in the Klamath region.
Based on computer analysis of satellite images since 1984, fires in dry regions of Oregon, Washington, and California have not been getting more intense, the study finds.
“The Recovery Plan is simply not scientifically justified, and would create substantial risks for the spotted owl,” said Chad Hanson, lead author of the study and a research associate at the University of California at Davis. “Areas of intense fire support peak numbers of wildlife species, including prey species upon which spotted owls depend,” he said.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should start over again with a science-based recovery plan that builds on the protective measures of the Northwest Forest Plan to recover spotted owls and hundreds of other old-forest dependent species regardless of fire,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy and former member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery team for the owl.
“There is certainly ample time to carefully design experimental thinning treatments in fire prone forests such as tree plantations without eliminating old forest reserves,” said DellaSala.
The authors noted that old forests are redeveloping much faster than they are being burned by fire, so old growth will increase with today’s rate of burning – not decrease, as presumed.
Still, the owls remain threatened by factors such as logging and barred owls.
“We do not know the long-term effects of management that aims to reduce fire effects in spotted owl habitat, nor can we assume that fire is currently a threat,” said Dennis Odion, a researcher at Southern Oregon University. “We can address these issues carefully and scientifically rather than jumping to conclusions.”
William Baker, a professor of ecology at the University of Wyoming, said, “It is very difficult to draw conclusions about wildfire trends over only one or two decades but, if anything, the data show that infrequent large fires, such as the Biscuit fire, contrary to common perception, do not appear to be a significant threat to northern spotted owl habitat in the dry forest provinces.”
In April, the Obama administration announced that it will not defend the Bush administration’s recovery plan or critical habitat determination for the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.
A case is being tried in federal district court in Washington, DC over allegations by conservation groups, including the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, that the recovery plan and critical habitat determination were scientifically flawed and that political interference prevented scientists from producing plans based on the best available science.
The timber industry is also challenging the critical habitat determination, claiming that it protects too much habitat.
Independent scientific peer review by the nation’s top professional wildlife societies concluded that both plans were not based on the best science and would likely trigger the need to up-list the owl to endangered status because it did not protect enough of the owls’ old forest habitat. Environment News Service