Federal biologists say in new court filings that prescribed burns and careful tree thinning will help the threatened Mexican spotted owl recover in six Southwestern national forests.
Last week, the U.S. Forest Service released the opinions of biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which it hopes will sway a federal judge to remove a monthslong injunction on timber activities in the six forests: Cibola, Santa Fe, Carson, Gila and Lincoln national forests in New Mexico and the Tonto National Forest in Arizona.
U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins in Arizona ordered a halt to timber activity in September as part of a lawsuit in which the Santa Fe-based group WildEarth Guardians accused the federal government of failing to protect the owl. In his decision, Raner cited insufficient monitoring of the bird.
A month later, however, the judge allowed limited cutting, such as Christmas tree harvests, to resume in areas outside owl territory.
The federal biologists concluded that selective logging and prescribed burns might cause short-term damage to owl habitat but will benefit the species overall by preventing large wildfires and enhancing undergrowth to allow the owl’s food sources — wood rats, squirrels and small reptiles — to thrive.
“The restoration work conducted by the Forest Service in the Southwestern region is focused on mitigating the risk of catastrophic wildfire, which is one of the largest threats to habitat and recovery for the Mexican spotted owl,” Forest Service spokesman Shayne Martin said.
An environmental advocate contended there’s still no hard evidence to prove that’s true.
“As both agencies know, there is no empirical data about whether tree-cutting is harming or helping the Mexican spotted owl,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians.
“Just saying there isn’t a problem doesn’t make it so,” he added.
The Mexican spotted owl was listed as threatened in 1993 under the Endangered Species Act after heavy logging and forest fires severely depleted its habitat and diminished its populations.
WildEarth Guardians sued the federal government in 2013 in an effort to increase protections for the bird. The court dismissed all of the group’s complaints except its call for thorough, range-wide monitoring.
The biologists, in their opinions in the case, said taking steps to prevent wildfires will become more crucial as climate change makes the region drier and the forests more prone to big blazes.
Some large logs and snags where owls roost would be lost in controlled burns, but far fewer than would be destroyed in “landscape-scale wildfires” that could rage in stands of thin trees and thick forest debris, biologists said.
Moderate cutting would decrease tree canopies in owl habitat but not more than 40 percent, the opinions said. On the plus side, creating some gaps in canopies lets in sunlight that enriches vegetation on the forest floor, where the owls’ prey can flourish. On private and tribal lands, which are less regulated, development, recreation, livestock grazing and other commercial activities have depleted owl habitat, the biologists noted.
Horning said he believes the best way to deal with inevitable, high-intensity fires is to make nearby communities fireproof rather than cutting down trees in critical owl habitat.
“That’s where all of our collective will and financial resources are best spent,” he said.