More comments on spotted owl plan, but is it enough?


After months of delay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week made a big move on the new spotted owl recovery plan, but it’s a move that few people expected.

It was just two months ago that the feds planned to release a final plan, without any further chance for public comment or changes. No one, from timber companies to environmental groups, was happy with the plan, and yet it appeared the federal government was still going to ram it through.

Then last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the surprise announcement that it was going to reopen the public comment period after all. But with two major caveats.

First off, the Service is only taking comment on just one appendix of the 181-page recovery plan, not the whole document. This appendix covers a key portion of the plan, a computerized model that “assesses the owl’s habitat and the effectiveness of various conservation measures” but it’s only an appendix in a much larger plan.

From the Medford Mail Tribune:

Basically, the model compares potential spotted owl population responses to different habitat-management scenarios and conservation measures such as barred owl management. For instance, the model suggests that if the barred owl moves into areas already occupied by spotted owls, the latter’s population is likely to decline.

The model brings together information from some 4,000 spotted owl sites in Washington, Oregon and far Northern California, according to an agency spokeswoman. Information gathered in the model includes such factors as forest stand characteristics, slope locations and elevation, she said.

That data is combined with more than 20 years’ worth of demographic information, such as survival and reproductive rates, from annual surveys, she added.

Second, the Service made its announcement so late in the game that the new comment period may not make any difference in the final plan. The new 30-day comment period will run until May 23, just seven days before a court-ordered deadline of June 1 for the Service to complete the plan.

Forestry groups across the country said the full spotted owl plan — not just an appendix — should have been opened up for public comment, and that the limited comment period that was announced won’t do anything to improve the final version of the plan.

From the forestry groups’ statement:

Further public review is sorely needed in light of the chorus of criticism raised by Members of Congress, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the forest products industry, environmental groups and scientific peer reviewers.

David Bischel, President of the California Forestry Association:

“Ironically, some of the most robust populations of Northern Spotted Owls occupy sustainably managed private forests of Northern California.  The first draft of the recovery plan completely ignored the positive benefits provided by pro-active forest management.  We hope the Service recognizes the proactive measures that private and state landowners have already made towards owl conservation, and not add more regulatory gridlock.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service has run out of time to come out with a fully researched plan, the forestry groups said. The only solution is to try to get an extension of the June 1 deadline, said Tom Partin, President of the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council.

“We hope the agency will ask the Court for additional time to complete the Recovery Plan.  That way, whatever comments come from the public can be used and not just ignored.”