SOUTHWEST

After eight years of legal wrangling, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has settled one of the Southwest's most embittered endangered species debates - or has it? On Jan. 18, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated 4.6 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah as critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl. Forest Service and BLM managers will have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before allowing any logging, grazing or mining in these "safety zones."

But environmentalists had hoped for more. The final designation is only a third of the 13.5 million acres proposed in an earlier draft, and excludes the national forests of New Mexico and Arizona, home to nearly 90 percent of the owls (HCN, 2/3/97: Injunction lifted in the Southwest). Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has sued repeatedly to force designation of critical habitat, says the Service's "logic like swiss cheese" leaves prime owl habitat fair game for the ax. "The maps look like they were drawn by the timber industry," he says.

Sarah Rinkevich, wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, says designating Arizona and New Mexico national forests as critical habitat would be redundant, because the 1995 Mexican Spotted Owl Recovery Plan is already incorporated into forest management plans. Danny Salas, wildlife biologist in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest, home of 134 spotted owl pairs, agrees. "The recovery plan is more restrictive than the critical habitat designation," he says.

The Center for Biological Diversity is not convinced, and has filed a notice of intent to sue to force a revision.