Spotted Owl rule put on hold

By Kate Campbell
California Farm Bureau Federation

A proposed federal protocol to increase checking for protected spotted owls on the North Coast has been put on hold, and small-scale timberland owners say they’ll continue working with regulators and elected officials to make sure the current rules remain in place.

Landowners with non-commercial timber management plans, which are designed for small landowners who only harvest periodically, have been required to do a one-year check for northern spotted owls before being allowed to harvest any trees. Checking involves hiring people skilled at “hooting”—calling the owls by voice—a total of six times in a year.

If the owls respond or come to the caller, presence of the species is confirmed and timber harvesting plans are adjusted to protect the bird and its habitat.

A one-year survey has been acceptable under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1992 protocol. But in advance of a new environmental impact statement that will include spotted-owl protocols, the service said it intended to require two years of surveys for the spotted owl—placing what small timberland owners call a significant, additional burden on them.

“We’re asking for a one-year owl-calling protocol for those with non-industrial timber management plans,” said Mike Anderson, a North Coast forester and logging contractor. “We think that makes the most sense. Those who ranch and manage timberlands on the North Coast need regulations they can count on and that help protect wildlife at the same time.”

Although the one-year protocol has been restored for this year, Anderson said it needs to be made permanent.

The new environmental impact statement including updated owl protocols will be finalized after the 2012 owl survey season. The proposed two-year requirement for owl calling caught many small timberland owners off guard.

“The fact that the updated protocols came out a year and a half early, coupled with one of the most significant economic downturns in modern history, with no transition period, places timber landowners in real jeopardy,” the California Farm Bureau Federation said in a March letter to the FWS office in Oregon. “In the current economic situation, a delay of one year can literally cost the family farm.”

Farm Bureau supported an earlier request to the service from the California Licensed Foresters Association for a one-year grandfathering of the single-year, six-pass northern spotted owl survey protocol for the 2011 calling season.

“We further request the U.S. FWS strongly consider continuing a single-year, six-pass survey for all non-industrial timber management plans into the future due to the light touch and infrequent harvest under these plans,” Farm Bureau said.

For now, the FWS has put the two-year calling requirement on hold, but has not indicated if it will continue with a one-year protocol into the future.

“The real truth is that there are a lot of spotted owls in the forests,” said Mendocino County timberland owner Peter Bradford. “They aren’t as endangered as some people believe and there are other threats to the species besides logging.”

One of those threats, Bradford said, is the barred owl, which has expanded its territory as far south as Marin County. The barred owl’s range now completely overlaps that of its slightly smaller and more timid cousin, the northern spotted owl, and barred owls compete with spotted owls for prey and habitat. Researchers have observed barred owls attacking spotted owls and think the larger owl may be killing some of them.

A draft of the environmental impact statement, which should be ready for review by summer, reportedly will recommend shooting as many as 1,500 barred owls in three or more study areas from Washington to Northern California.

The unexpected change in the spotted owl calling protocol was discussed with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., when CFBF directors met with congressional and agency leaders in Washington, D.C., in March. Bradford, who is a CFBF director, explained to Feinstein the impact of the new owl-calling protocol on small landowners with approved timber harvest plans and asked that the FWS decision be reviewed.

The FWS later announced that it would retain the one-year calling protocol, for now.

“If we can get a permanent protocol for one-year calling on the (non-industrial timber management plans), we’ll be able to retain some flexibility to react based on market conditions,” Bradford said. “With two-year calling, you have to anticipate market conditions two years out and begin calling then. It’s hard to predict the market that far out.”

The market for timber has been unusual, said Anderson, who is president of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau. In the past few years, the lumber market has been depressed, but there are some emerging opportunities.

“Now, landowners are in a position to sell some logs, but can’t get the permits without two-year protocols,” he said. “Many small landowners were blindsided by the decision to go to a two-year protocol because they don’t harvest on a regular basis and don’t track the rules on a daily basis like larger companies. Now, they’ve changed back to a one-year owl-calling requirement.”

To help clarify the situation, the CFBF Forestry Advisory Committee recommended at its meeting last week that Farm Bureau pursue with the Fish and Wildlife Service development of a permanent, single-year owl-calling survey for small timberland owners.

The committee also recommended that CFBF work with Cal-Fire—which administers timber plans—and FWS to minimize any additional northern spotted owl protocol requirements that may constrain harvesting, specifically requiring additional surveys along roads and on routes within a quarter-mile of a nest site or activity center.

“It’s hard to guess about the market and hit it when conditions are favorable, especially when you have to wait two to three years to harvest,” Anderson said.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

Disclaimer: Articles featured on Oregon Report are the creation, responsibility and opinion of the authoring individual or organization which is featured at the top of every article.