By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
As public hearings wind down on a proposed recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, several Pacific Northwest congressmen have asked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to allow more time to comment on the controversial document.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials may decide this week whether or not to extend the deadline, set for June 25, by another 60 days.
"It appears likely that we will," said Joan Jewett, spokesperson for the Pacific Regional Office in Portland, Ore.
The proposed recovery plan would mark the first for the bird, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1990. That act requires a federal plan to recover a species' failing population, but so far, that effort has come only from the federal Northwest Forest Plan of 1994.
That plan guides timber production and protects owl habitat on 24.5 million acres of federal lands in California, Oregon and Washington but does not outline ways to rebuild the bird's population.
In 2005, the Seattle, Wash., chapter of the Audubon Society, citing an unreasonable delay, sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to prompt a recovery plan. Last year, a service-appointed task force started work on the document.
The group's plan, released last month, sparked debate over its unprecedented move of including two options one that designates specific reserves for the owls and another that would let federal agencies map out their own bird boundaries.
The plan also prompted complaints from two task force members who have said that federal agencies and administration officials influenced the document by steering its attention away from habitat loss and timber production to focus more on the aggressive barred owl that has invaded the spotted owl's terrain. The plan recommends killing some barred owls.
Scientific peer review
Public comments have ranged, supporting and objecting to the specific options and the call to kill barred owls.
Hearings in Roseburg, Ore., and Redding have each attracted more than 50 people, but Jewett expected more at a Portland meeting Wednesday night.
"A decade or so ago, there would've been far more people at these meetings," Jewett said.
The service has sent the proposal to the American Ornithological Union and the Society for Conservation Biology for independent peer reviews.
"We want the science to be reviewed by experts in this field," Jewett said.
Scott Greacen, national forest program coordinator with the Environmental Protection Information Center in Humboldt County, expects those organizations' comments on the document to add to the debate and to discredit both of the plan's proposals.
"This plan needs to be sent back to the drawing board," Greacen said, adding that the proposal fails to provide a solid framework to recover the bird.
The service would not need the review if its recovery task force had included more biologists and experts from the start, Greacen said.
In a letter to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, seven congressmen, including Democrat Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents Del Norte County, have asked for a longer public comment period. The letter notes the proposal's unprecedented two options, the ongoing peer review and other issues in the area that could affect the plan habitat designation for marbled murrelets, a Bureau of Land Management revision of western Oregon resource management plans, and Forest Service revisions to the Northwest Forest Plan.
"It is critical that the public and the scientific community have the time to analyze how all of these changes will intersect and synergistically affect the survival and recovery of the spotted owl," the congressmen's letter states.
Once the comment period ends, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials will review the record and draft a final plan, possibly by April 2008.
To comment on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service northern spotted owl draft recovery plan, visit www.fws.gov or write to NSO Recovery Plan, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Ecological Services, 911 NE 11th Ave., Portland, Ore., 97232. The deadline is June 25.