Friday’s Denver post featured an AP story about the catastrophic Arizona wildfires, mentioning the usually-taboo topic of the destruction of endangered species and their habitat. A good friend sent an email pointing out that “It’s ironic that litigation over Mexican spotted owls was the primary reason that forest management was shut down in Arizona,” while the Post article says, “now crown fires in overgrown forests have become the greatest cause of unusual losses for the birds.”
One of the oddities in Endangered Species Act enforcement is the unequal treatment of public and private landowners. Government official are fond of pointing out that the vast majority of habitat for most endangered species is on private land. That’s because they want to force private owners to manage private lands for the benefit of the species, while officials smugly ignore the government’s own role in the loss of vital habitat.
The Mexican spotted owl is the latest poster child, of many. As the AP article pointed out, 73 nest areas were destroyed by the latest fire – that is more than half of all the known nesting areas in that entire national forest. This is not an isolated or coincidental occurrence, either. In Colorado, the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire and the 2002 Hayman fire destroyed more than half the known Mexican spotted owl habitat in that State. The same fate befell the unfortunate California spotted owl over the past few years – fifteen identified owl sites incinerated in two 2005 fires on the Eldorado National Forest, and twenty more in that State’s 2007 Moonlight Fire.
What is truly fascinating is the government’s continued use of the spotted owl as a favorite tool, not for recovery of the owls, but for stopping human activity – even activity that would improve the habitat!
When the Fish and Wildlife Service designated the official “critical habitat” for the Mexican spotted owl in 2004, it said “Forests used for roosting and nesting often contain mature or old-growth stands with complex structure. These forests are typically uneven-aged, multistoried, and have high canopy closure.” In other words, they need healthy forests with trees of varying ages, not single-age stands, and certainly not dead forests. The agency said the two primary threats to the continued existence of the species were “even-aged timber management,” and catastrophic wildfires. The Forest Service has done nothing about either problem since that document was written, so the problem is worse than ever.
The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that the deaths of vast tracts of forest, caused by bark beetles, are at least partly responsible for the “alteration of habitat.” And the recovery plan called for action to head off that growing disaster: “Clearly, forest management that decreases forest density, primarily by thinning from below, will help to control populations of some of these organisms.”
So given these fairly obvious circumstances, what has the government done to thin the forests and restore healthy stands of multi-aged trees? Nothing. Instead, managers have steadily eroded the Forest Service’s budget for any and all timber activities, and spent billions on other “missions,” such as trails, campgrounds, research, studies, green job creation, climate change, and grant programs.
It is unclear how many spotted owls may actually have been killed by these giant wildfires – in fact the government has no idea how many there are, how many there ever were, or whether their population is increasing or decreasing. Nor is there any definition of what population would constitute recovery of this threatened species.
What is very clear is that the owls will continue to be used as an excuse to regulate and limit forest thinning, recreation, oil and gas exploration, and grazing. It is equally clear that any private landowner who purposely took action – or refused action – that resulted in the death and destruction of hundreds of spotted owls would be in deep trouble.
When I headed the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, I once thought the State should simply sue the federal government for failing to manage forests in a manner that would protect the habitat of the spotted owl (and numerous other endangered species). Such a lawsuit would certainly draw attention to the government’s own culpability in the species’ decline, and perhaps begin to apply the same standard to public land managers as to private.
Then-Attorney General Ken Salazar was reluctant to file that suit at the time, pointing out the difficulty in holding a government agency accountable for not taking some action. Maybe he was right. I am not a lawyer, but if you ask me – and any number of owls – lack of action is action.
Maybe Uncle Sam should point that finger at himself once in a while.