Owl study tips scale for court

An unpublished "progress report" on northern spotted owls in an area burned by the Timbered Rock fire helped environmentalists land their first success in blocking old-growth salvage logging under the Healthy Forests Initiative.

A federal judge Monday cited the 14-page memo on the threatened owls as one of two main reasons for blocking the 6.1 million-acre salvage sale within the 2004 Sims fire on the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California.

The memo from Oregon State University researchers to Bureau of Land Management biologists reveals that radio-telemetry tracking of five spotted owls in winter 2003-04 showed they frequented lands that were moderately and severely burned during the 2002 Timbered Rock fire.

The pilot study, which is part of a larger study due out in 2007, concludes that the results should be considered "exploratory and preliminary" and does not say what the owls were doing in the burned tracts.

Finding owls in severely burned stands "doesn’t mean they were staying there," said Jim Harper, a BLM wildlife biologist in Medford who oversees the OSU study for his agency. "That doesn’t mean they were foraging there. It was not peer-reviewed. It was not in-depth. It was a small sample size.

"It was like a progress report," Harper said. "That’s what I’d call it."

But U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco saw it differently.

Illston issued her preliminary injunction stopping logging of the burned Sims fire timber, saying that the Forest Service apparently ignored the study as well as testimony from University of Washington old-growth forest expert Jerry Franklin about the need to leave dead trees standing.

"Instead, (the Forest Service) simply stuck to its assertion that the northern spotted owl did not benefit from severely burned forest," the judge wrote.

The injunction indefinitely halts logging and road-building in the Sims fire area near Garland, Calif., while the suit plays out in federal court.

If the lawsuit succeeds, it will be the first time environmentalists have stopped a timber sale offered under new Bush administration regulations known as the Healthy Forests Initiative that make it easier to log after wildfires.

The Timbered Rock notation surprised George Sexton, conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, which is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Sexton said he believes the study shows the Forest Service erred in dismissing potential impacts that salvage logging might have on spotted owls.

"It gave (Illston) the leeway to say that (burned) habitat may be providing prey and foraging needs of the spotted owl," Sexton said.

"The science is starting to line up with what biologists have always suspected, which is that fire is not a leveling force for spotted owls in the same way logging is," he said.

In the study, OSU researchers affixed radio transmitters to five spotted owls in the BLM portion of the fire area, then followed them regularly to pinpoint their locations.

About 7.5 percent of the owl locations were estimated to be in unburned stands, while 49.3 percent were in low-severity burns and 23.9 percent in moderate-severity burns, the study states.

Also, 19.4 percent of the locations were in high-severity burns, the study states.

The study cost the BLM $25,000, Harper said.