Feds to Review Spotted Owl, Murrelet Protections

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 16, 2003 (ENS) - A proposed settlement announced this week between the timber industry and the federal government could overturn protections for northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets in the Pacific Northwest. Conservation groups, who have intervened in lawsuits challenging the protected status of the rare birds, say they were excluded from the settlement talks.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the Bush administration agreed to review the federal protections now in place for the two species, which has been blamed for the crash over the past decade of a Pacific Northwest logging industry dependent on timber from public lands. The review could eliminate the legal shield now provided for the birds by the Endangered Species Act, potentially removing both their threatened status and their designated critical habitat.


Timber industry lawyers argue that the northern spotted owl is less reliant on old growth forest than previously believed. (Photo by J&K Hollingsworth, courtesy USFWS)
The review is part of a proposed settlement the administration has offered in two federal cases in which the timber industry charges that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is overdue for a legally mandated review of the biological status of the two bird species. Under the Endangered Species Act, the agency must review the status of listed species every five years.

Hugh Vickery, Interior Department spokesperson, said the proposed settlement does not weaken protection for the birds, but will speed up needed status reviews for both species.

But environmental groups who are parties to both lawsuits say they were excluded from the settlement talks, and announced that they will file objections to the settlement with the court.

"This sweetheart deal sets in motion actions that could open up our old growth forests to renewed attack," said Mitch Friedman of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance.

The proposed settlement would require the USFWS to review the status of the marbled murrelet, a sea bird that nests near the tops of old growth trees, and the northern spotted owl, by the end of this year. The review would "determine whether a change in listing status is warranted."


A marbled murrelet, a seabird about the size of a robin, nests on the limb of a coastal redwood tree. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
The agency also agreed to review the critical habitat set aside for the spotted owl by December 2005 and for the marbled murrelet by August 2006. Under a 2001 federal court ruling, these reviews must consider the economic impacts of the land use restrictions that accompany critical habitat designations.

Timber industry lawyers point to recent research which suggests that old growth trees, generally considered crucial to the survival of both species, may be less important than previously thought.

"The northern spotted owl was listed because it was thought that the amount of the old growth forest on which they allegedly depend was declining," argues the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, on its website. "No research was done to verify the assumption of exclusive old growth dependency which now is known to be false. Since spotted owls use a wide variety of habitats, the projected amount of spotted owl habitat has been steadily increasing since listing."

owl nest

The Bush administration has agreed to review the status of northern spotted owls, like these nesting in an old growth snag. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management)
If the USFWS review supports this conclusion, more old growth forest acres could be opened to logging.

Environmental groups are hopeful that federal biologists will conclude that both birds still warrant federal protection. To date, most scientific reviews indicate that northern spotted owl populations continue to decline.

Biologists are still learning about the needs of the secretive murrelet, but preliminary results of a radio tracking study by biologists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) showed that every murrelet nest the team located was in an old growth tree.

However, in several recent cases where industry coalitions have brought challenges to environmental protections, the federal government has either failed to defend the lawsuits or settled on terms that benefit special interests and harm the environment. For example, the government eliminated habitat protections for many salmon species in a settlement earlier this year, and it has done the same for imperiled red-legged frogs in California.


Researchers capture marbled murrelets at sea and tag them with radio transmitters to trace them back to their well hidden nests in old growth trees. (Photo courtesy USGS)
Citizen groups say these government concessions to industry have forced them to play the role usually reserved for the Department of Justice.

"It was a knock down, drag out fight to get protections for owls, murrelets, and our ancient forests, and now the Bush Administration is giving away special deals right and left," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice. "Apparently the administration no longer defends environmental lawsuits brought by its friends in the timber industry."

Represented by Earthjustice, the groups in the court cases are Audubon Society of Portland, Biodiversity Northwest, Environmental Protection Information Center, Gifford Pinchot Task Force, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Seattle Audubon Society, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.