FRESNO, Calif. – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday rejected a petition to list the California spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act, saying the population is stable and programs that prevent forest wildfires will allow it to thrive.
The decision rankled the environmental groups that had requested protection of the speckled, football-sized owl. This was their second effort to list the bird in three years.
The petition's denial was based in part on the recommendation of scientists commissioned to study the owl, said Steve Thompson, manager of the agency's California-Nevada operations office.
They found that fires that creep through excessive brush and eventually consume the old-growth forests the owls prefer are their main threat, Thompson said, adding that U.S. Forest Service tree thinning programs will prevent the spread of flames and ensure the owls remain off the endangered list.
But environmentalists protested, saying the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan, amended in 2004 to allow cutting trees of up to 30 inches in diameter, is logging in disguise and destroys owl habitat.
"They're completely off base," said Noah Greenwald, with the Center for Biological Diversity's Portland office. "Logging is by far the most serious threat to the California spotted owl and the kind of fuel reduction they're talking about is just that — logging."
Greenwald said that it's long been understood that the owls need mature trees. He said that thin, easily consumed vegetation such as grass, brush and small trees under 12 inches in diameter are what feed the raging fires that can race through California's hills in summer and fall.
Environmentalists said the petition's denial has more to do with the current political climate than with threats facing the owl.
Another threat to the California spotted owl is encroachment into its territory by a larger, more aggressive owl — the barred owl, originally from the East Coast.
But although the eastern owl moved quickly into the Pacific Northwest, its spread into the Sierra has been slower than anticipated, and it hasn't reached Southern California yet, federal officials said.
Placing the owl under federal protection would have required officials to designate habitat that is essential for its recovery. That could have significant impact on activities allowed within the 11.5 million acres of national forests in the Sierra.
It could severely limit commercial logging in the area, as seen when a closely related subspecies — the northern spotted owl — was listed as threatened in 1990. Large tracts of federal forests were closed to logging in Northern California, Oregon and Washington, cutting back logging by 80 percent in federal forests and reducing it in private lands, and leaving timber-depended towns to face an economic slump.