Conservation groups sued last year saying plan ignored science
By PHUONG LE
SEATTLE -- A federal judge is requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise a Bush administration recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, and the federal agency said it planned to release a draft this week.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled Sept. 1 that the agency must come up with a revised recovery plan within nine months for the threatened bird, which has been at the center of a long battle over logging in the Northwest because it lives in old growth forests.
The judge also required revisions to the owl's critical habitat, which had been cut in 2008 under the Bush administration by 1.6 million acres, or about 23 percent, in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
The Obama administration had voluntarily asked the federal court last year to send back the 2008 recovery and habitat plans, after it determined both were "legally erroneous." Lawyers for the Department of Interior made the request after reviewing records, including an inspector general's report finding potential political interference in owl protections by a former deputy assistant Interior secretary, Julie MacDonald.
"We think this is a strong step toward restoring critical habitat protection," said Paul Kampmeier, an attorney at the Seattle-based Washington Forest Law Center, one of several firms representing conservation groups to challenge Bush administration decisions on owl protections that allowed increased logging. "The hope and our expectation is that the Obama administration will make sure that the best available science drives the process."
The spotted owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 primarily because of heavy logging in old growth forests. Lawsuits from conservation groups led to a reduction of more than 80 percent in logging on federal lands, causing economic pain in many logging towns.
The Bush administration agreed to produce a new spotted owl recovery plan and review the critical habitat designation plan under terms of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the timber industry.
Conservation groups, including the Seattle Audubon Society, Oregon Wild and others, sued last year to undo the plan, arguing that U.S. Fish and Wildlife ignored the best available science and was influenced by the Bush administration.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said a 2008 plan still left too much forest in critical habitat, but he was pleased that the judge left it in place until a revised designation is completed.
"It's a lot better than going back to the 1992 critical habitat designation," he said.
The federal government had asked the judge to vacate the 2008 critical habitat designation and revert back to a 1992 plan that set aside nearly 6.9 million acres for northern spotted owls. The judge did not do that, instead leaving it in place while ordering a revised one.
The fish and wildlife service said Sept. 2 it had already initiated a revision of the recovery plan and planned to release the draft recovery plan Sept. 8, to be finalized later this year.
"We're including new and emerging science as it's being developed," said Miel Corbett, assistant supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Oregon office.
The revised recovery plan takes into account the comments from scientific organizations, which raised concerns about the adequacy of habitat use and management of forest lands, she said.
Corbett declined to released further details.