Federal wildlife officials authorized the U.S. Forest Service to kill up to 103 threatened northern spotted owls in 14 timber sales slated for auction this spring in the Klamath National Forest, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Westside Fire Recovery Project will clear-cut 6,800 acres on slopes above the Klamath River where lightning fires in the summer of 2014 affected owl habitat reserves, CBD said in a news release.
“Natural fires restored the forest after decades of fire suppression and gave spotted owls a kitchen full of food,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Owls can thrive with fire, but they cannot survive clear-cutting after fire.”
In a biological opinion signed on late last week and released on Feb. 25, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that post-fire logging may “incidentally take” 74 adult owls and up to 12-29 juveniles, but will not jeopardize the continued existence of the forest raptor overall.
The opinion is required by the federal Endangered Species Act before the Forest Service can formally offer the timber sales, which were initially advertised last year.
More than 70 percent of the area proposed for logging overlaps Late-Successional Reserves designated by the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan to secure old-growth forest habitat for crashing spotted owl populations and prevent their extinction.
A recently published demographic study found sharp declines of spotted owl populations at an annual rate of nearly 4 percent range-wide from 1985 to 2013. The Klamath Mountains are thought to be the best hope for recovery of the species and a source for long-term repopulation of owls in the Cascades and Coast ranges.
Despite the owl’s ongoing decline and the scientific recommendation in published literature that post-fire logging should not be conducted within owl territories, the biological opinion allows the Forest Service to remove habitat from up to 57 established activity areas where the owls nest.
“Clear-cut logging at that scale in occupied habitat is a major setback for spotted owl recovery,” Lininger said.
The Fish and Wildlife opinion signals for the first time since the regional forest plan went into effect that federal biologists openly disagree about impacts to spotted owl resulting from a post-fire logging project.
Last fall Dr. Paul Henson, the top Fish and Wildlife official responsible for spotted owl recovery, commented to the Forest Service that logging in the Westside project should be “minimized” where owls remain after fire because large, dead trees will “greatly improve” the quality of forest habitat as it naturally recovers over time.
“In general, most scientists agree that salvage logging does not contribute positively to the ecological recovery of naturally disturbed forests,” Henson wrote. “It is important for (land managers) to seek ways to implement important fuel reduction work without over-utilizing salvage logging that can adversely affect the restoration of natural conditions.”
Henson also cast doubt on the core rationale advanced by the Forest Service for the project, namely to reduce hazardous fuels and fire danger.
“In our experience many post-fire salvage projects tend to be more opportunistic than part of a larger-scale, proactive strategic planning effort to reduce fire spread and severity,” he wrote.
Foresters also recently wrapped up a separate consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service stating that post-fire logging would harm threatened coho salmon by adding sedimentation to Grider and Walker creeks and reducing egg survival.
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