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How Scientists Prevented New Recovery Plan from Jeopardizing Spotted Owls

USFWS' Previous Owl Recovery Plan Used Fear of Fire to Justify More Logging

When U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled its final recovery plan for the northern spotted owl on June 30, it made new headlines. (The spotted owl is famous because the logging of its old-growth forest habitat has pushed this bird to the brink of extinction.) But most of the recent media coverage has overlooked a key facet of the story — how a team of independent scientists helped guide the Fish and Wildlife Service away from an erroneous interpretation of the relationship between spotted owls and forest fires that had threatened to jeopardize protections for the owl.

Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS Threatened northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina).

The creation of a recovery plan might sound like good news for the spotted owl; however when the Bush administration attempted to finalize their version of the recovery plan in 2008, environmental organizations sued to halt it. Environmentalists had to take this action because the Bush plan would have actually reduced spotted owl protection by removing restrictions on logging in over a million acres of forest reserves that had been created for the owls. Under the Orwellian logic of the Bush plan, those reserves needed to be opened up to logging ostensibly to protect owls from forest fires— log it to save it.

This idea of using fear of fire to justify logging did not begin with the George W. Bush administration. Instead, it took off in the 1990s after the plight of the spotted owl led to widespread public opposition to commercial logging on national forests. In response, the timber industry and its allies promoted new rhetoric repackaging their logging of public lands as now being done for “forest health” and “fire risk reduction.”

This rhetoric was adopted by Fish and Wildlife Service officials under the Bush administration when they prepared their spotted owl recovery plan in 2008. They claimed that big forest fires would imperil spotted owls by burning up all of the owl’s old-growth habitat, and therefore more logging was needed to prevent this. However, it turned out that those claims were wrong, as was discovered by team of scientists led by Dr. Chad Hanson of Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project.

Hanson’s research revealed that the amount of old-growth forest in the spotted owl’s range has actually been increasing as large trees grow back, thanks to logging restrictions, at much faster rate than they are affected by fire. (There is not too much forest fire. In fact, as a result of fire suppression policies, western forest ecosystems are currently experiencing a harmful lack of fire compared to their natural conditions.) Hanson’s results were published in the scientific journal Conservation Biology and were cited in the lawsuit by environmental organizations against the 2008 recovery plan. The lawsuit halted the Bush plan, and when the Obama administration took office, it opted to throw out that plan for not being based on the best available science.

Unfortunately, not much changed when the Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled its revised draft recovery plan in 2010. The new version was still premised on the fear that the spotted owl’s old-growth forest habitat would be lost to fire. This time the Fish and Wildlife Service relied primarily on a single source to support this claim. Remarkably, this source was not a scientific article, but instead was simply a PowerPoint presentation by a forest service staff person that had never been published, nor had it gone through the proper scientific peer review process. In their comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the draft plan, Hanson and his colleagues uncovered fundamental errors in the PowerPoint presentation and once again demonstrated the fire was not causing a net loss in old forest habitat for spotted owls.

Photo by Monica BondRecent research has found that spotted owls prefer to forage in areas that have experienced forest fires.

Their response to the Fish and Wildlife Service also highlighted an important recent study by wildlife biologist Monica Bond that turned common assumptions about the relationship between spotted owls and fire on their head. Because spotted owls commonly nest in large green trees, it was often assumed that big fires that kill trees must be bad for owls. However, Bond’s field research revealed that spotted owls actually prefer to forage for food in areas that have experienced intense forest fires. Most likely, this is because the shrubs that temporarily grow in post-fire forests are great habitat for the small animals that spotted owls eat. While green, old-growth trees may be the spotted owl’s “bedroom,” the owls prefer to use nearby unlogged burned forests as their “kitchen.” In short, big forest fires can be beneficial for spotted owls. (To learn more about the research of Bond, Hanson, and other scientists in discovering the ecological importance of large, intense forest fires, see The Myth of “Catastrophic” Wildfire.)

The good news is that the Fish and Wildlife Service has now incorporated the findings of Hanson, Bond, and other scientists into the final version of the Northern spotted owl recovery plan. As a result, there have been significant improvements compared to the draft version. The final version no longer cites the infamous forest service PowerPoint and has abandoned proposals to open up some of the owl’s forest reserves to more logging. Instead, it now asserts that “It is not our do landscape-wide treatments [i.e. logging] for the purpose of excluding disturbance events such as fires, including high-severity fires. On the contrary, we are looking to support the disturbance regimes inherent to these systems..”(p. III-32).

While Hanson and his colleagues are pleased by this progress, they also note that the final version of the recovery plan still contains some remnants of the old fire-phobic, pro-logging approach. As one scientist summarized it in terms of letter grades, the 2008 plan was an “F” and the new plan is a “C+”.  So there is still much work for these scientists to do. But for now, their research has helped to avert what could have been a major setback to the protection of the spotted owl.


Douglas Bevington is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009).

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Permit to Kill Bald Eagles Granted by Obama Administration.

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