The U.S. Forest Service has agreed to undertake a comprehensive monitoring plan to figure out whether Mexican Spotted Owls are actually declining as a result of things like logging, forest restoration projects, controlled burns and other activities.

The Forest Service has struck a deal with WildEarth Guardians to fund population counts and project monitoring efforts focused on the endangered, old-growth-loving owls.

Environmental groups have been battling the Forest Service in court since at least 1993, maintaining the Forest Service didn’t have enough studies and monitoring to determine whether the forest owl was recovering or continuing to dwindle.

Back in January, a federal district court judge ruled that the Forest Service’s plan to protect the endangered owl was “arbitrary and capricious” because it didn’t involve enough actual monitoring of owl populations.

The new agreement will apply to 20 million forested acres in 11 National Forests in the Southwest, including the Apache Sitgreaves, Coconino and Tonto.

“This agreement provides a framework for the Forest Service to better protect national forests and Mexican spotted owls,” said John Horning, Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians. “By agreeing to rigorously monitor species and track habitats, this management framework could be a national model for the Forest Service to protect and recover threatened and endangered species.”

“The agreement reached today along with the work of the recently established Mexican spotted owl Leadership Forum will increase transparency, communication, and coordination around forest health and wildlife conservation efforts” said Acting Regional Forester Sandy Watts. “The affected forests are eager to resume work on the ground, demonstrating our commitment to conducting sustainable restoration projects in a way that benefits all.”

In January, the federal court had temporarily halted logging activities on four national forests that had not adopted a Forest Plan with adequate spotted owl guidelines, including the Tonto National Forest.

The Forest Service agreed to pay the environmental group’s not yet specified court costs and to budget money to maintain adequate owl-monitoring activities through 2025.

The enhanced monitoring activities will try to pinpoint the nesting and foraging activities of the elusive owls. The monitoring plan will undertake a survey for owls before, after and during activities likely to affect them – including prescribed burns, restoration thinning projects and timber sales. This will allow biologists to get a better idea as to how such activities actually impact the owls.

In a release, the Forest Service said, The resolution contains six parts, including securing funding for continued owl population trend monitoring through 2025, conducting research to better understand the effects of thinning and prescribed burning on owl populations, data sharing, and greater collaboration for conservation of the Mexican spotted owl. For more information visit www.fs.usda.gov/goto/r3/mso

Forest Guardians also hailed the agreement. “We have long contended that the Forest Service’s claims that logging is good for owls is not based on sound science,” stated Judi Brawer, WildEarth Guardians’ Wild Places Program Director. “This agreement requires the agency to finally assess the impacts of its timber management actions and adjust those actions accordingly to ensure that they do not harm the owls or their habitat.”

“The agreement’s greatest significance is that it brings citizens, science, and the law together in the way that the framers of environmental laws intended,” stated Horning “The foundational principle of environmental laws is that citizens uphold the laws. This is the core principle of healthy, functioning, and effective democracy, and one that is currently under direct threat.”

The management of the dwindling owl populations has been plagued by uncertainty, with key decisions often based on informed guesswork rather than actual measurements of population shifts.

Biologists had long assumed that the small Mexican Spotted Owls depended on thick clusters of old-growth trees for both nesting and foraging. In the past century, loggers have removed most of the old growth trees except in steep canyons and other places that were unprofitable to log.

More recent studies have suggested the owls may prefer to next in big trees with a dense canopy cover, but may forage readily in more open forest settings. One of their big problems may stem from competition with the barred owl, which is expanded into their territory.

Either way, the new era of megafires poses an existential threat to the owls — along with a host of other forest species. A high-intensity crown fire kills most of the trees, which may require centuries to regrow and virtually eliminate spotted owls from the area. Spotted owls appear much more able to make use of an area after thinning, prescribed burns or low-intensity ground fires than biologists had assumed.

The Forest Service in the Southwest is now focused on things like the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative, intended to thin some 2 million acres from about 700 trees per acre to more like 50 or 100 trees per acre. The thinning projects could have an impact on the owls, but far less than the alternative of megafires. However, the legal impasse over the monitoring program threatened to shut down or delay forest restoration projects as well as commercial timber sales.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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