Federal Agency Doesn't Give a Hoot about Owls
NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.
Updated on: Dec 18, 2007
High ranking officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the other federal land agencies intervened in the recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, compromising the science-based protections in order to reduce barriers to increased logging in old-growth forests.1 Prominent scientific societies,2 several members of Congress,3 and over 100 individual scientists4 have strongly criticized the agency for subverting a process which should represent the best available conservation science for the species.5
FWS listed the northern spotted owl as threatened in 1990 due to habitat loss from logging operations, and the bird has been heavily studied ever since as it is regarded as an indicator for the overall health of Oregon, Washington, and California forests.6 The old-growth and mature conifer forest habitats required by the owls are protected under the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, a multi-agency agreement brokered by the Clinton Administration to sustainably manage the ecosystems and timber interests in the region.7
However, according to peer review by scientists, the draft Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan8 prepared in 2007 by FWS is a hodgepodge of deliberately misrepresented or selectively applied science that downplays the importance of habitat loss.9 It also includes a second management option, forced upon the recovery team by senior officials, that eliminates fixed protected areas for the bird.10 The end result of this compromised process is a scientifically unsupportable document that would significantly reduce habitat protections for the threatened bird.
Interference with the recovery plan
A recovery team of stakeholders from federal and state agencies, the timber industry, and conservation groups collaborated with FWS to draft the spotted owl recovery plan. Conspicuously missing from this team were any well-recognized, independent spotted owl biologists.11 The recovery strategy they drafted followed the successes of the Northwest Forest Plan and recommended preserving mapped areas of old-growth forest.12 However, given that there were disagreements among team members regarding how much old-growth forest to protect in reserves, the team requested a thorough peer-review of their finished draft after they submitted it in September 2006 to the Washington, D.C. FWS headquarters.13
In testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee,14 recovery team member Dr. Dominick DellaSala alleged that instead of immediately sending the report out for peer review, FWS convened an internal, non-scientific review board called the "Washington Oversight Committee." This committee was comprised of thirteen high-ranking officials from the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the departments of Agriculture and the Interior.15 It also included former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald,16 who resigned after the Interior Department Inspector General revealed she was responsible for widespread political interference in ESA decisions.17
Recovery team meeting documents retained by DellaSala show that revisions were made to the recovery plan to match a laundry list of complaints from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Washington Oversight Committee. This pressure forced the team to include a second management strategy which did not protect fixed areas of old growth forests and would result in reduced and fragmented habitat for the owl. They were also told to de-emphasize the consequences of habitat loss and to remove all references to the Northwest Forest Plan.18
Scathing peer review
The modified recovery plan, including both Option 1 (mapped, protected areas) and Option 2 (no mapped, protected areas) was finally released for peer review in April 2007. FWS contracted the Society for Conservation Biology (North American Section) and the American Ornithologists' Union to conduct the review, and their four anonymous reviewers were uniformly critical of the science in the plan. 19 Some of their main criticisms were:
- The primary threats to the spotted owl are misrepresented by underplaying the effect of logging and habitat loss, and greatly overstating the importance of competition from barred owls. Barred owl encroachment is most likely a result of habitat loss.
- Measurements estimating habitat quantity and quality are poorly defined and based on misinterpreted science. Improved spotted owl habitat models were available for use at the time of the recovery plan drafting, but the recovery team used outdated models instead.
- Option 2 uses outdated science, fails to protect existing spotted owl habitat, has no measurable objectives to assess progress to recovery, and is unworkable due to excessive coordination between agencies.
A separate independent peer review conducted by The Wildlife Society concluded that the recovery plan was based on flawed science and should be redone.20
Three of the scientists consistently cited in the recovery plan were asked by FWS to assess the application of their research in the recovery plan; all three felt their work was either misrepresented, selectively applied, or stretched beyond the author's conclusions.21 Among them, Dr. Katie Dugger criticized the deliberate exclusion of recently published findings, saying "the Recovery Team's approach which does not include ALL the best available science puts the entire recovery plan process and the resulting document into question."22
A failed recovery plan
The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) weighed in for a second time, strongly criticizing both the recovery plan and the draft critical habitat designation for the spotted owl, which has carried forward many of the flaws of the recovery plan.23 In a letter to FWS, SCB concludes "We can find no scientific justification for the combined reductions in habitat proposed under both the draft recovery plan and the critical habitat determination relative to the stronger protections afforded the owl under the Northwest Forest Plan."24
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) included the spotted owl in a December 2007 request to the Department of Interior's Inspector General to investigate eighteen separate Endangered Species Act decisions. These 18 are in addition to seven decisions FWS has already begun to review internally due to political interference removing or reducing protections for imperiled species.
Twenty three democratic members of Congress25 and 113 independent scientists26 have separately called upon FWS to scrap the current plan and put on hold any related decisions, like the critical habitat designation, until a new recovery plan, truly based on the best available science, can be drafted.
1. DellaSala, Dominick. Written testimony for the House Natural Resources Committee Hearing entitled "Endangered Species Act Implementation: Science or Politics?" May 9, 2007. Accessed Dec 18, 2007.
2. The Wildlife Society. Comments on the Draft Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan. Aug 9, 2007. See also Society for Conservation Biology. Letter to Kemper McMaster, Field Supervisor. Re: Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) North American Section comments on proposed critical habitat exemptions for the northern spotted owl. Aug 10, 2007.
3. Letter from members of Congress to Interior Secretary Kempthorne regarding the Northern Spotted Owl Draft Recovery Plan. Oct 2, 2007.
4. Letter from 113 scientists to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne Re: Northern Spotted Owl Draft Recovery Plan. Oct 2, 2007.
5. Notice of Interagency Cooperative Policy on Information Standards under the Endangered Species Act, 59 FR 24271. July 1, 1994. Accessed Dec 18, 2007.
6. Seattle Audubon v. Evans 777 F. Supp. 1081, 1088 (1991).
7. Northwest Forest Plan. Accessed Dec 18, 2007.
8. FWS. Draft Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl: Merged Options 1 and 2. April 2007.
9. FWS. N. Spotted Owl Draft Recovery Plan peer reviews. Accessed Dec 18, 2007. See in particular the Society for Conservation Biology (North American Section) and American Ornithologist's Union review.
10. DellaSala Written Testimony.
11. DellaSala Written Testimony.
12. DellaSala Written Testimony. See also: Courtney, S. and J.F. Franklin. 2004. Scientific Evaluation of the Status of the Northern Spotted Owl. Chapter 9: Conservation Strategy. Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, Portland Oregon; Noon, B.R. and J.A. Blakesley. 2006.Conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl under the Northwest Forest Plan. Conservation Biology, 20:288-296; Strittholt, J.R., D.A.DellaSalla, and H. Jiang. 2006. Status of mature and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Conservation Biology, 20:263-274; Thomas, J.W. et al. The Northwest Forest Plan: Origins, components, implementation experience, and suggestions for change. Conservation Biology, 20:277-286.
13. DellaSala Written Testimony.
14. House Natural Resources Committee. Hearing entitled "Endangered Species Act Implementation: Science or Politics?" May 9, 2007.
15. Dellasala Written Testimony.
16. DellaSala Written Testimony.
17. Department of Interior, Office of Inspector General. Report of Investigation: Julie MacDonald, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
18. DellaSala Written Testimony.
19. FWS. N. Spotted Owl Draft Recovery Plan peer reviews. See in particular the Society for Conservation Biology (North American Section) and American Ornithologist's Union review.
20. The Wildlife Society. Comments on the Draft Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan. Aug 9, 2007.
21. N. Spotted Owl Draft Recovery Plan peer reviews. See in particular those of Dr Katie Dugger, Dr. Alan Franklin, and Dr. Gail Olsen.
22. N. Spotted Owl Draft Recovery Plan peer reviews. Dr Katie Dugger.
23. FWS. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Proposed Revised Designation of Critical Habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina); Proposed Rule. Federal Register, Vol 72. No 112. June 12, 2007.
24. Society for Conservation Biology. Letter to Kemper McMaster, Field Supervisor. Re: Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) North American Section comments on proposed critical habitat exemptions for the northern spotted owl. Aug 10, 2007.
25. Letter from members of Congress to Interior Secretary Kempthorne. 26. Letter from 113 scientists to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.