The gigantic Wallow fire now searing Arizona and New Mexico has burned a lot of things, including several thousand acres of habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl (not to be confused with its more notorious cousin, the Northern spotted owl, once blamed for the demise of logging in the Northwest).
Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a new recovery plan for the raptor. It was federally listed in 1993 and in 2004, FWS designated 8.6 million acres of critical habitat in Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.
Its population has continued to decline though, mostly due to habitat loss, despite court rulings upholding the critical habitat designation. But without good on-the-ground management, that designation doesn't provide much protection from the biggest threat to the species: wildfire.
April Reese reports for Land Letter (subscription required):
"We recognize the primary threat to the owl is fire," said Bill Block, manager of the Forest Service's wildlife and terrestrial ecosystems program in Flagstaff, Ariz., who helped write the recovery plan. "We see a lot of the Southwest burning up right now, and we know we'll be losing a lot of owl habitat. And we also know that if we do management, we can limit the amount of habitat we lose. So from our perspective, (making owl habitat more resistant to stand-replacing fires) is the primary way to reduce the threat to the owl."
Decades of fire suppression have left Southwestern forests overloaded with small trees and underbrush, while drought and climate change have made huge, high-intensity fires the new norm for the region.
The new recovery plan emphasizes restoring Southwestern forests to improve habitat and reduce fire risk through expanded thinning projects, reports Land Letter. It also calls for monitoring of owl populations, although some environmental groups say the monitoring isn't adequate to determine if the bird's numbers are increasing or decreasing. They also point out that the plan does not address other factors, such as grazing.
On the flipside, others are angling to boost the Southwest's timber economy by making an end run around the owl, despite the fact that logging in the region, like that in the Northwest in the '90s, has fallen victim to forces far greater than spotted owls. Changing markets, globalization, and the mechanization of tree-cutting, along with stronger environmental protections overall for forests, have had much more to do with the loss of logging jobs in both regions.
Nonetheless, New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce, R, thinks that getting spotted owls out of the way will return his state's timber industry to its former glory. He's introduced a bill in the House (HR 1202) that would “restart jobs in the timber industry by providing for the protection of the Mexican spotted owl in sanctuaries.” Pearce's bill would allow logging on millions of acres, while keeping owls tucked out of the way in 1,000- to 3,000-acre reserves.
Environmentalists say the bill, which exempts logging from environmental review, would green-light the cutting of vast areas of old-growth timber that the owls depend on – and the relatively small sanctuaries wouldn't be enough to save them.
Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.
Photo of Mexican spotted owl, courtesy USFWS.