By Gregory Crofton
Tribune staff writer
Environmental groups filed a petition with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week requesting endangered species protection for the California spotted owl.
Eighteen months ago Fish and Wildlife rejected a similar petition because there were "no overall trends that showed a decline in population" of the owl, said Al Donner, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife assistant field supervisor.
The more than 80 environmental groups from California that filed the petition this week said changes in how national forests in the Sierra Nevada are to be managed has decreased protection for the owl and its old-growth forest habitat.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the Sierra Nevada Framework to deny protection for the owl, even though they knew protections provided by the plan were on the Bush Administration's chopping block," said Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups to file the petition. "In the absence of protection for old-growth forests, the California spotted owl needs the safety net provided by the Endangered Species Act."
The Forest Service rejects the claim that its new plan for the Sierra Nevada, presented earlier this year, will not provide adequate protection for the owl. The agency's position is that the forest plan adopted in 2001 did not allow the agency to adequately reduce fire danger in national forests. That in turn increases the likelihood of a wildfire wiping out a stand of old-growth trees inhabited by the spotted owl.
"If anything we feel the 2004 decision will do a better job protecting owls because fires have been getting bigger and hotter in recent years," said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service. "During that period from January 2001 to January 2004 we were not able to get the amount of thinning or prescribed burning done that was needed to protect the forest and therefore the owls from catastrophic fires."
There over 1,300 known spotted owl activity centers in the Sierra Nevada, some of which are located in old-growth trees on the West Shore, according to Craig Thomas, director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, which also filed the petition.
The owl is listed by California Department of Fish and Game as a "second priority" bird of special concern. That means the species are "on the decline in a large portion of their range in California, but their populations are still sufficiently substantial that danger is not immediate," according the department's Web site.
"(Listing) would provide increased protection for old-growth, which is what's critical," Thomas said. "And it would make federal agencies more focused and have to be more cautious of how they effect old-growth forest and owls in the future. It doesn't mean you can't protect communities from fire and do prescribed burning."