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Scientists See Politics in Spotted Owl Plan

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

More than 100 independent scientists suggested yesterday that political pressure may have led federal officials to water down protections for the northern spotted owl in a recently revised recovery plan for the threatened bird.

Six separate peer reviews, five of them funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all suggest that the agency's revised plan downplayed the importance of protecting old-growth forest in the plan to manage a species that ranges from the Canadian border in Washington state to Northern California.

Yesterday, 113 scientists sent a letter urging the Interior Department to redo its draft recovery plan, while 23 congressional Democrats sent a similar missive questioning whether political appointees altered the plan. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) also asked the Government Accountability Office to explore the matter.

"We are greatly concerned that, according to scientific peer review recently conducted by owl experts and three of the nation's leading scientific societies, much of this science was ignored," the scientists wrote to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

The question of how to protect the northern spotted owl, which makes its home in commercially valuable forests and has been listed as threatened since 1990, has dogged policymakers for nearly two decades. The Fish and Wildlife Service first designated critical habitat for the bird in 1992, and in 1994 the Clinton administration protected more than 7 million acres of federal land for the owl and roughly 400 other species.

The scientists said the new plan could weaken protection for between one-fourth and one-third of old-growth forests designated for these species. The northern spotted owl's population has dropped an average of 3.7 percent a year over the last two decades, said Dominick A. DellaSala, a forest ecologist who opposes the plan.

David Wesley, who is deputy regional director for Fish and Wildlife's Pacific region and recovery team leader for the spotted owl, called those estimates "speculation on their part," adding: "I'm concerned about what's right for the owl."

He added that he and his colleagues had revised the plan because Interior officials in Washington asked a year ago for "an option that had less reliance on specific lines on a map."

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who organized the letter in opposition to draft plan, said, "The reason the Bush administration doesn't like lines on a map is it actually provides protection, and prevents their political friends from having clear-cuts and harvests. . . . This plan is so explosive it could ignite a whole new generation of timber wars in the Northwest."

An independent review by the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists' Union said, "These changes may in part reflect new information . . . but it's hard not to conclude that they may also result from pressure to relax restrictions on logging."

The public comment period on the draft recovery plan ends Friday. Wesley said he and other agency officials were reviewing the peer-review studies along with the more than 80,000 comments Fish and Wildlife has received. "I understand where they say we erred. I'm more than happy to go back and look at it," he said.

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