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Agencies Defy Court Order to Avoid Wildlife Protection






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habitat could be "withdrawn" by Nov. 30, 1995.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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