Model assesses habitat-management scenarios for northern spotted owl

The life and times of the northern spotted owl are now available in a computerized model.

Dubbed Appendix C, the 81-page document released Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assesses the owl's habitat and the effectiveness of various conservation measures.

The document is a late addition to the draft revised recovery plan the agency released last fall for the threatened species. The 30-day comment period on the model ends May 23.

The model was developed by the "spotted owl modeling team," a group of scientists called together by the agency to help recover the spotted owl population under the Endangered Species Act.

The model, packed full of data and charts, was not completed in time for the draft revised recovery plan when it was released last fall. The agency, which had expected to complete the final plan early this year, is under federal court order to complete the final plan by June 1.

The Portland-based American Forest Resource Council was one of the plaintiffs in the Washington, D.C., district court case challenging the agency's 2008 spotted owl recovery plan.

Nearly 12,000 public comments have been received regarding the draft revised plan.

"The habitat modeling tool has been one of the biggest topics of our ongoing dialogue with recovery partners, environmental groups and the timber industry throughout the revision process for the spotted owl recovery plan," said Paul Henson, supervisor for the agency in Oregon, said in a prepared statement.

"Because of the progress made in developing and testing the modeling tool, we now have a better opportunity to answer questions and resolve concerns," he added.

Basically, the model compares potential spotted owl population responses to different habitat-management scenarios and conservation measures such as barred owl management. For instance, the model suggests that if the barred owl moves into areas already occupied by spotted owls, the latter's population is likely to decline.

The model brings together information from some 4,000 spotted owl sites in Washington, Oregon and far Northern California, according to an agency spokeswoman. Information gathered in the model includes such factors as forest stand characteristics, slope locations and elevation, she said.

That data is combined with more than 20 years' worth of demographic information, such as survival and reproductive rates, from annual surveys, she added.

Both the timber industry camps and the conservation communities are expected to carefully pore over the newly minted model,

But Tom Partin, president of the AFRC, expressed skepticism about the time allowed, given concerns already raised about the draft plan.

"We hope the agency will ask the court for additional time to complete the recovery plan," he said. "That way, whatever comments come from the public can be used and not just ignored."

"It is important that we allow the scientists to complete their process before making management recommendations that will affect thousands of people in rural communities, already struggling from the great recession," said Ray Wilkeson, president of the Oregon Forest Industries Council.

Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist who is president of the Geos Institute in Ashland, was a member of the original spotted owl recovery team. The bird is a valuable indicator species for ancient forests, he said.

"The old forests the owl represents clean the air we breathe, purify our drinking water, and also provide habitat for salmon," he said. "The owl is our wake-up call that we can't cut old trees anymore without degrading these life-giving services.

"To move forward, we need to transition out of old-forest logging and into thinning small trees in overly dense tree plantations," he added.

To read the entire document, see www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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