Mexican spotted owl

A pair of Mexican spotted owl fledglings in Apache-Sigreaves National Forest.

ARIZONA & NEW MEXICO — The Forest Service last week rushed to comply with a federal court order in the long-running drama centered on the survival of the old-growth loving Mexican spotted owl. The Forest Service hopes the court will lift its ban on timber harvesting in five national forests quickly.

A US District Court judge had barred further timber harvesting on the Tonto National Forest as well as four national forests in New Mexico, including the Gila National Forest. The judge ruled the Forest Service had never undertaken a real population survey and so had no way to tell whether the threatened tiny owl was still dwindling or actually recovering.

Senior United States District Judge Raner Collins ordered the Forest Service to reopen its consultations with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and reconsider its previously issued biological opinions.

Last week, the Forest Service did just that before asking the court to lift its temporary injunction on timber harvesting in the Tonto, Gila, Lincoln and Santa Fe National Forests. The injunction didn’t cover other Arizona forests that had already updated forest plans to incorporate changes ordered in previous court decisions – including the Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Kaibab, all of which have populations of Mexican spotted owls.

“As promised, we have focused on meeting our consultation responsibilities under the Court’s Order as quickly as possible, as we are fully committed to continuing efforts for the recovery of the Mexican spotted owl,” stated Regional Forester Cal Joyner. “We’re encouraged and grateful for the work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and for the sustained support of our partners and communities across the region and we are hopeful that these filings will lead to quick relief to the communities affected by the court-ordered injunction.”

Not enough data

The federal judge issued the injunction because despite 30 years of court orders and lawsuits, the Forest Service still has no comprehensive monitoring program to determine whether the number of owls is increasing or decreasing. Back in 1993, biologists estimated about 2,000 owls remained – but those results were based on fragmentary and admittedly speculative monitoring programs.

Some studies suggest a 30 percent decline. Other studies suggest owl populations are relatively stable. Most experts agree high-intensity wildfires pose a grave threat, but some studies also suggest the owls readily forage in areas affected by low intensity or even moderate intensity wildfires.

The judge halted timber harvesting on the five forests in September. In October, the judge modified the order to allow Christmas tree cutting, fuelwood gathering and timber cutting in areas that didn’t include owl habitat. The nesting areas are mostly in steep canyons with old growth trees, but foraging areas span a much larger area.

Ironically, restoration and thinning projects like those envisioned by the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative remain the best way to reduce the risk of forest-destroying crown fires and hence the long-term survival of the owl.

The Forest Service has argued it can’t afford to undertake a comprehensive population monitoring program for the small, secretive owl. The owls spend much of their time in steep canyons difficult to survey by biologists tromping through the forest at night playing owl calls and hoping for a response.

The Forest Service has argued it therefore has focused on protecting the habitat biologists think the owls need. Forest plans impose timber-cutting restrictions on the few remaining old-growth patches and surrounding foraging areas. But without population monitoring, it’s hard to know whether that’s working. When surveys prior to a timber sale find evidence of owls, the Forest Service can impose additional restrictions.

Starting in 1993, the Forest Service reacted to a series of court decisions by designating owl breeding and Protected Activity Centers (PAC) areas, where the owls can forage for rodents on the forest floor.

However, the environmental group Forest Guardians sued on the multiple grounds, including the lack of comprehensive monitoring activities.

The judge agreed, in part, and ordered timber harvest project halted until the Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service come up with a better plan.

“It has been demonstrated over the past 20 years that ‘the status quo will not lead to the recovery of the listed species,’” wrote the judge. “The Court finds that USFS timber management actions causes irreparable harm” without better monitoring.

Absent population trend numbers, the “no jeopardy” ruling the Forest Service makes before each timber sale “is arbitrary and capricious,” the judge ruled.

However, he also found for the Forest Service on many of the claims. The judge upheld the process by which the Forest Service allowed the limited “taking” of owls, the assessment of risks to the owls, the analysis of wildfire impacts, the consultations with tribal governments like the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache, the consideration of the impact of climate change and the decision to split the analysis into 11 different regions.

Recent impacts —forest restoration and Trump Administration

Several recent developments could have a big impact on management of the spotted owls going forward – at least in Arizona.

For starters, the Forest Service has now completed the environmental analysis of some 2 million acres in Northern Arizona as part of 4FRI. The analysis includes a study of the impact of thinning and controlled burns on wildlife, including spotted owls and goshawks – both threatened or endangered species. The goal of 4FRI is to preserve the remaining old growth trees and create a much more healthy, open forest, with a mosaic of trees of different ages and stands of different densities. Biologists believe this will benefit old-growth dependent species like the goshawk and spotted owl, in large measure by preventing forest-altering, high-intensity crown fires.

In addition, the Tonto National Forest has just released a draft of its 20-years-overdue overhaul of its forest plan. The lack of an updated Forest Plan is one reason the Tonto was included in the injunction, while the other Arizona national forests were excluded.

Moreover, the Trump Administration has proposed sweeping new rules for implementing the Endangered Species Act, which could further complicate the status of plans to protect the Mexican spotted owl and others.

Back in August, the Administration announced it would “modernize” the Act when it comes to “Threatened” species, like the spotted owl and the goshawk. The new rules would allow regulators and courts to consider the economic costs of listing a species and make it much harder to take into account long-term potential threats – like climate change.

A recent United Nations assessment concluded 1 million species are currently in danger of extinction, with projected climate change a key factor.

The administration imposed the new interpretation of the act after the US Senate balked at considering changing the existing law legislatively.

Environmental groups have vowed to file a new round of lawsuits to fight the new rules, which went into effect in September.

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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