Citing federal budget cuts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided it can't afford to pay an outside contractor to develop the long-overdue recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, so it will develop the blueprint for saving the threatened species from extinction on its own.
"We had hoped to get a special funding allocation to handle a contractor who could help us with what will be a very labor intensive recovery planning process," said Fish and Wildlife spokesman David Patte. "It just didn't come to bear."
The owl's dependence on old growth forests forced a dramatic cutback in logging on national forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California in the 1990s.
However, owl numbers continue to fall as the species confronts new threats with no clear way to stop any of them — disease, wildfire and the barred owl, a cousin from eastern Canada that is pushing spotted owls from the best habitat.
The decision to pursue a recovery plan, shelved before it was finished in 1992, is part of the settlement of a timber industry lawsuit demanding a new look at the federal lands set aside from logging as critical habitat for the bird.
Patte said the cost of paying a contractor to do the recovery plan was estimated at about $400,000. A draft is due in nine months, and a final plan in 18 months.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, the Portland timber industry group that brought the lawsuit, said he was disappointed at the decision, because Fish and Wildlife has had a poor track record for getting work done on time. By comparison, a status review of the owl done by a private contractor two years ago was done professionally and on time.
That review, the first ever done outside the government, was coordinated by the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute in Portland. It concluded that owl numbers were continuing to drop, despite logging cutbacks to protect old growth forest habitat.
"There is a pressing need for clear leadership and strong action for the conservation of the species," said Steven Courtney, vice president of the institute.
Given the worsening condition of the owl, a recovery plan could lead to even more stringent restrictions on logging, particularly on state and private lands, said Susan Ash, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland.
"It's possible the federal government could consider the situation so dire for the northern spotted owl that they would go to simply a no-take policy, where you just can't destroy spotted owl nests," said Ash. "It could — might possibly — render a lot of habitat conservation plans null and void."
Habitat conservation plans are agreements between landowners and Fish and Wildlife that balance protections for a species against landowners' rights to use their property.
The northern spotted owl was designated a threatened species in 1990. Lawsuits by environmental groups forced the Clinton administration to adopt the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, which cut logging on federal lands in the Northwest by more than 80 percent. The Northwest Forest Plan became a de facto recovery plan for the owl, but did not cover state and private forestlands.
Actual timber production under the plan never met its targets, leading the timber industry to press the Bush administration to boost logging on federal lands. Private lands increased harvests to fill the gap.
As a result of the American Forest Resource Council lawsuit, Fish and Wildlife agreed to take a new look at the critical habitat designated for spotted owls, particularly more than 1 million acres designated for timber production under the Northwest Forest Plan.
As part of that effort, Fish and Wildlife agreed to finally write a recovery plan, which had been abandoned as the Northwest Forest Plan was being developed. That plan divided federal lands into areas where logging was the primary goal, and areas where fish and wildlife habitat was the primary goal.