The Arizona Republic, November 25, 1994 By Steve Yozwiak Agencies defy order to save owl Files detail habitat plan Federal officials are secretly trying to avoid assigning protected status to forests in Arizona and New Mexico for the Mexican spotted owl, despite a federal judge's order to do so. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has outlined how it could work with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to keep from designating "critical habitat" for the rarely seen owl, according to documents obtained by The Arizona Republic. Critical-habitat areas provide species with special.. protections under the Endangered Species Act. The designation would make owl-nesting sites off-limits to most logging, and grazing. It also would protect potential nesting areas to allow the birds, which number about 2,700, to increase their population. That could enable officials eventually to remove the owl from the list of animals considered in danger of extinction. Protection for the owl is considered paramount by biologists and environmentalists because, as birds of prey at the top of the food web, they provide an indication of the overall health of forest ecosystems. In June, U.S. District Judge Carl Muecke ordered the Fish and Wildlife to establish critical habitat for the owl., -See U.S., page A12 A12 The Arizona Republic Friday, November 25, 1994 U.S. agencies defy order to save spotted owl - U.S. from page A I The order came five years after environmentalists petitioned to have the owl put on the list of species "threatened" with extinction, and more than a year after that designation was granted. However, in early September, Steve Spangle, endangered-species listing coordinator for Fish and Wildlife's regional office in Albuquerque, prepared a confidential briefing paper that asked: "Can conservation agreements or other mechanisms be used to preclude designation of critical habitat throughout all or a significant portion of the species' range?" The document went on to outline how Fish and Wildlife could arrange with the Forest Service to create a "recovery plan" to protect the owl. The document ends with a timetable showing how the recovery plan could be substituted for critical habitat, and the proposal for critical habitat could be "withdrawn" by Nov. 30, 1995. In motions filed in September, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, acting on behalf of Fish and Wildlife, asked that critical habitat not be required until Dec. 1, 1995. Environmentalists contend the proposed timetable was not coincidental. Providing options Noting that studies of the owl's habitats should have been completed earlier this year, environmentalists asked that critical habitat be established no later than Jan. 18. Muecke split the difference. On Sept. 30, he ordered Fish and Wildlife to propose critical habitat for the owl by next Thursday, and to complete maps outlining the critical habitats by May 27. Even so, Spangle told The Republic this week that his agency still is working to avoid the necessity of designating critical habitat. Spangle denied trying to circumvent the judge's order, saying it was his job to provide options for his boss, Fish and Wildlife's regional director, John Rogers. Spangle explained that if a "voluntary" recovery-plan agreement could be reached with the Forest Service and various Indian tribes, critical-habitat status would not be needed to protect the owl. But Mark Hughes, an attorney for a Colorado environmental group called Earth Law, said recovery plans are almost impossible to challenge if citizens believe they are too weak or if they result in destruction of owls or their habitats. "It would be like having an agreement to have the wolf watch the sheep," said Hughes, referring to what environmentalists consider the Forest Service's weak protection of the forests and the agency's close ties to the timber industry. With critical habitat designated, proposed timber-cutting plans that potentially could harm the owl could be quickly challenged in the courts, Hughes said. Federal officials never mentioned the possibility of substituting a recovery plan 'for critical 'habitat during meetings with environmentalists after Muecke's ruling in June, Hughes said. Not only has Spangle moved to avoid the designation of critical habitat, he also has successfully argued to lessen the amount of forest lands proposed for critical habitat. In July, the New Mexico Ecological Services Office, the scientific branch of Fish and Wildlife that studied the owl, proposed 7,9 million acres to be designated as critical habitat. In subsequent confidential reviews, Spangle ripped the proposal, concluding, "No one is advocating 'writing off portions of the species' range, just flat adequate protections already exist in areas where timber harvest is not a threat. "Proposing arm that will not benefit from designation (of critical habitat) will hurt the service's credibility, will go against service policy to use good science, and will provide additional ammunition for anti-ESA (Endangered Species Act) interests." Spangle criticized the need to designate critical habitat in much of Arizona, including parts of the Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona; the Kaibab National Forest surrounding the Grand Canyon; the Prescott and Tonto national forests in central Arizona; and the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo Reservation bordering Arizona and New Mexico. Spangle told The Republic that when the proposed rule for critical habitat is released next week, the amount of critical habitat will cover 3 million to 5 million acres. That's not enough, according to Sam Spiller, who supervises the scientific investigations for Fish and Wildlife in Arizona. In a letter to Rogers in August, Spiller called creation of critical habitat in the areas attacked by Spangle "essential" to the' owls' survival. For example, although the Forest Service contends there are no spotted owls on the Kaibab Plateau, Spiller wrote, his biologists have observed them there on more than 20 occasions. Don Olson, president of Kaibab Forest Products Co., whose timber operations are heavily dependent on cutting trees north of the Grand Canyon, suggested researchers may have just been listening to others calling out for the owls. Olson said he doesn't believe there was enough scientific evidence to warrant listing the owls , even as "threatened," let alone protecting critical habitat for them, Overprotective' rules Even the owl guidelines produced by the Forest Service, which environmentalists ridicule as plans to continue cutting trees, are "overprotective," Olson said. Both Olson and Marlin Johnson, the Forest Service's assistant director for forest management in Albuquerque, said they are concerned that if all of the timber firms go out of business in the Southwest, there will be no one to "manage" the forests. They contend that the failure to cut enough trees, combined with nearly a century of fire suppression, , has allowed too many small trees to stifle the growth. of larger ones, encouraged the spread of insects and disease; and enabled the accumulation of fuel that could result in catastrophic forest fires. But a recent study conducted by Northern Arizona University shows the owls prefer forest areas that have not been logged and tend to avoid areas that have been cut. According to the Forest Service, only about 2 million of the 20 Million acres of federal forest land in Arizona and New Mexico can be characterized as old-growth forest. Environmentalists contend that virgin forests with the kind of giant ponderosa pines preferred by the owl continue to disappear because of logging. "They (timber firms) want to continue to cut the last big trees," said Phoenix environmental activist Robin Silver, a doctor and wildlife photographer who originally petitioned, to save the owl five years ago, "They (federal agencies) are motivated to continue to prop up the failing timber industry here regardless of the effects on the last remaining old-growth." Sam Hitt, director of the environmental group Forest Guardians, said Spangle is using opposition by right-wing groups to the Endangered Species Act to avoid adequate protections for the owls. Hitt said that although almost no logging takes place in the Coronado National. Forest in southeastern Arizona, it needs to be designated as critical habitat to guard against excessive grazing and what he called "industrial" recreation. Environmentalists are fighting with the Forest Service over new campgrounds on Mount Graham planned near owl-nesting areas. Hitt said the Coronado's mountain-top "sky islands" are a needed geographic link between owls in the United States and those in northern Mexico. "There's a biological meltdown of epic proportions going on (in Mexico)," Hitt said of the destruction of ponderosa-pine forests in the Sierra Madre. Combined with insufficient protection for the owls in the United States, Hitt said, the owls eventually will be isolated in ever-smaller pockets and eventually die off.
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