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Spotted owl declining faster than ever, new study finds

Jeff Barnard Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The latest five-year study on the Northern spotted owl shows the threatened bird is declining faster than ever.

The study appears to be a blow to timber industry efforts to loosen restrictions on logging in national forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California that were put in place to protect fish and wildlife habitat. The study follows another report that found the threatened marbled murrelet in decline.

While owl numbers held steady or declined only slightly in most of the study areas in Oregon and California from 1998 to 2003, they declined so fast in Washington that the population as a whole fell by 4.1 percent, the study found.

That compares with an overall decline of 3.5 percent in the previous five years, said Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest research station in Corvallis, Ore.

The spotted owl appears to be suffering from incursions by the more aggressive barred owl, a native of Eastern Canada that has moved into Washington, and from the loss of forests to insect infestations on the east slope of the Cascade Range in Washington, Forsman said.

The study will be presented Thursday to a panel of experts gathering information for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will decide late this year whether the owl will continue to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. The review was ordered by the Bush administration to settle a lawsuit brought by the timber industry, which hopes to loosen restrictions on logging.

“I’m sure this will be a very significant piece of information they are going to have to weigh in their decision,” Forsman said.

Compiled by 29 biologists from federal agencies, timber companies, private consulting firms and Indian tribes, the study monitored 11,432 banded owls in 14 study areas in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. It represents 12 percent of the owl’s range.

Washington saw declines of 7.5 percent a year; Oregon, 2.8 percent a year; and California, 2.2 percent a year. Reproduction was stable in seven study areas, declined in five areas and increased in two areas. Survival rates declined in five study areas but were stable in the other nine.

Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics noted that the authors of the Northwest Forest Plan — instituted in 1994 to settle a lawsuit brought by environmentalists to protect habitat for the Northern spotted owl — envisioned owl numbers would decline slowly until habitat reserves grew over the next century to support greater numbers.

“If the rate of decline is twice as fast as assumed, will the owl still be around to enjoy the new habitat grown in 100 years?” Stahl asked in Eugene, Ore. “The only way to responsibly come to grips with it is to cease cutting spotted-owl habitat on federal lands.”

Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, noted the study has yet to be peer-reviewed and suggested the data do not fully support the conclusions.

The panel of owl experts also will consider a new genetics study by U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist Sue Haig.

Haig said the study, to be published in the journal Conservation Genetics, found strong evidence for designating the Northern spotted owl a separate subspecies, separating from the California and Mexican spotted owls 1.4 million years ago.

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