Northern Spotted Owl Protection Plan May Harm Rival Birds

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON, March 1 (Reuters) - The Obama administration is going forward with a plan to protect the endangered northern spotted owl that includes removing or killing rival barred owls.

In its latest attempt to save the imperiled owl, the Department of the Interior plan would designate habitat considered critical in Washington, Oregon and California. It would allow some logging in the areas, however, to reduce the risk of forest fires and to create jobs.

The spotted owl has seen its numbers decline by about 40 percent in 25 years. The greatest threats to the species are habitat loss and competition from barred owls, which are extending their range westward from the eastern half of the United States and Canada.

The draft plan is "a science-based approach to forestry that restores the health of our lands and wildlife and supports jobs and revenue for local communities," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement this week.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering "combinations of both lethal and non-lethal" methods to remove the barred owl, the statement said. They include capturing and relocating them or placing them in permanent captivity.

The spotted owl was designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. The move led to logging cutbacks on national forests and other federal lands in western Washington, Oregon and California.

Salazar's announcement was accompanied by a presidential memorandum that calls on the Department of the Interior to direct forest industries on how logging can be carried out in habitat areas, while at the same time preserving the largest possible areas from loggers.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to redesignate critical habitat by Nov. 15. The public comment period lasts for 90 days.

The Washington Forest Protection Association, an industry group, said it backed the Fish and Wildlife Service's assessment of the impact of the barred owl on the spotted owl's survival and the need for hands-on forest management.

But the current proposal would take 1.27 million acres (514,000 hectares) of forest out of production, representing more than 15,000 jobs across the three states, the association said in a statement.

"With the presence of the barred owl, scientists say that setting aside even more land will do little to help the spotted owl thrive, and may make matters worse by making even more room for the barred owl to flourish," said Mark Doumit, the association's executive director. (Reporting By Ian Simpson; Editing by Sandra Maler)