Officials propose 13.5 million acres for owl habitat

PHOENIX - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday proposed designating 13.5 million acres of federal land as critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, nearly three times the amount of its original designation.

The area, which covers parts of each of the Four Corners states, is substantially larger than the 4.8 million acres designated in 1995 because more nesting and roosting locations have been identified, said agency spokeswoman Vicki Fox.

The original critical habitat designation was revoked in 1997 by a judge who found that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to comply with provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Fish and Wildlife had done little to redesignate critical habitat for the threatened owl until a judge ordered the agency in March to come up with a plan by Jan. 15, 2001.

On Friday, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was proposing that critical habitat be designated over 5 million acres in Arizona, 4.6 million acres in New Mexico, 3.3 million acres in Utah and 600,000 acres in Colorado.

The proposed designation, which does not become final until public comment is taken into consideration, would not preclude people from hiking or camping on the land. But it does mean federal agencies must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before doing something that might disturb the steep canyons and old growth forests the owls favor. It also may affect private landowners who need federal permits for activity on their land.

Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization, said his group is pleased with the larger critical habitat proposal.

''We're very happy that it has increased substantially. That's because we have a lot more knowledge about the owl's habitat and its needs,'' he said.

The Mexican spotted owl is one of three subspecies of spotted owl in the United States. The medium-sized bird with dark eyes, brown coloring, whitish spots on the head and neck is found only in the Four Corners states, west Texas and northern Mexico.

In its original critical habitat study, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the owl had been pushed out over the years by logging. Federal biologists don't have reliable current estimates for the population, but in 1990, about 2,160 owls were believed to have been left.

On the Web:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican spotted owl site: http://mso.fws.gov

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