Positive Step for WEG and Owl Lawsuit

Thanks to Terry Seyden for this..

In our previous pieces here and here on this litigation, I wondered a bit why the power users in Phoenix, and the townspeople of the Village of Ruidoso should suffer because of an issue between WEG and the FS on monitoring. Apparently, WEG did see it the same way. Good on them.

I still don’t understand the mechanics of how power line maintenance could harm the owl, maybe someone can enlighten me.

Group Won’t Interfere With Thinning
By Rene Romo / Journal South Reporter on Tue, Jan 17, 2012

http://www.abqjournal.com/main/2012/01/17/news/group-wont-interfere-with-thinning.html

LAS CRUCES — Despite winning a federal court order last week halting three forest-thinning projects to avoid harm to the Mexican spotted owl, WildEarth Guardians will not stand in the way of urgently needed work to reduce fire danger, a spokesman said.

The Jan. 5 court order halted two tree-thinning projects in Arizona and, in New Mexico, a project known as Perk-Grindston aimed at reducing fuel loads by tree removal and controlled burns on about 5,000 acres of the Lincoln National Forest on the south and west sides of Ruidoso.

Treating the forest west or southwest of Ruidoso is a high priority because winds that generally blow to the northeast could carry a wildfire into housing developments.

Ruidoso’s municipal forestry director Dick Cooke said while “a good portion” of the Perk-Grindstone project approved in mid-2008 has been completed, more work remains. The village also has treated about 80 acres of land within city limits.

“There’s been quite a bit done, but there’s still much to do,” Cooke said. “I would say the risk of wildfire on that side of the village is still high.”

In Arizona, some of the work halted involved removing hazards from tree growth along power lines. A tree that fell across power lines in late June was blamed for sparking the Las Conchas Fire, which burned more than 156,000 acres near Los Alamos and destroyed dozens of homes in the Cochiti Canyon area.
Bryan Bird, a program director for WildEarth Guardians, said the organization is negotiating with government attorneys and the Forest Service “to assure that the maintenance of the power lines will continue without harming the owl” and before the start of the owl’s breeding season in March.
“They (the Forest Service) need to get started immediately on that, and we understand that and we are being flexible in that matter,” Bird said.

In the Ruidoso area, Bird said, WildEarth Guardians is working to ensure the injunction halts only work that could affect nesting sites “so the Forest Service can continue with thinning where it doesn’t hurt the owl.”

WildEarth Guardians alleged in the 2010 suit that the Forest Service had failed to monitor the population of the Mexican spotted owl as required by a 2005 agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bird said without maintaining counts of the owls, the impact of thinning projects on the owl cannot be determined.

— This article appeared on page C2 of the Albuquerque Journal

One Comment

  1. Here’s another recent article, that may provide some more insight into the concerns of the plaintiffs. On another note, I think our PAO may have been misquoted as there was no plan to halt the Upper Beaver Creek project internally. I think it may be a reference to the fact that the parallel Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit had already resulted in a preliminary injunction on the project by Judge Bury.

    AN E&E PUBLISHING SERVICE
    ENDANGERED SPECIES: Judge halts forest projects in Mexican spotted owl habitat (Thursday, January 12, 2012)
    April Reese, E&E reporter
    Three tree removal projects planned within Mexican spotted owl habitat in Arizona and New Mexico cannot go forward until the Forest Service has a better idea how such projects could affect the imperiled bird, a federal judge ruled last week.

    Last summer, WildEarth Guardians sought an injunction to stop the projects, two involving thinning to reduce the risk of wildfire and another designed to clear trees in a utility corridor. In a decision issued Jan. 5, U.S. District Judge David Bury agreed with the Santa Fe, N.M.-based environmental group, saying the agency must monitor the Mexican spotted owl population and determine how well the birds are faring before allowing trees to be cut within the project areas.

    “The issue is that they’re just not doing what they said they would do, which is monitor the population numbers,” said Bryan Bird, public lands director for WildEarth Guardians. “We feel like they shouldn’t take any more actions that could jeopardize the bird without knowing the actual population number.”
    image removed

    Critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, which was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, covers 8 million acres in 11 national forests in Arizona and New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

    The group targeted the three projects — a fuel reduction project in south-central New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest, the Upper Beaver Creek logging project in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest and a utility maintenance project that spans several national forests in the state — because those were “the worst” of all projects planned within the owl’s habitat, Bird said.

    Cathie Schmidlin, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said the ruling really only affects two projects, because the agency already decided to suspend the Beaver Creek project due to concerns about the owl. She said she could not comment on the court order itself, due to the agency’s policy not to weigh in on pending litigation.
    Under the order, the Forest Service also must complete a new consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine how to better protect the bird.
    Initially, Judge Bury denied WildEarth Guardian’s request to halt the three forest projects, but he reconsidered after the group pointed out that the first ruling was at odds with a broader companion case filed by the Center for Biological Diversity that also involved concerns about the Mexican spotted owl.

    ‘A considerable undertaking’
    A new recovery plan for the owl issued by FWS last summer calls for “vigilant monitoring,” along with habitat restoration, as part of its revised blueprint for pulling the nocturnal bird back from the brink (Land Letter, June 23, 2011).
    “The facts aren’t in dispute,” Bird said. “What’s in dispute is how do we move forward and protect the owl while managing the forest.”

    The Forest Service itself has noted the need for monitoring the population in documents dating back to 1996, but the agency has repeatedly said budgetary constraints have prevented it from doing so. FWS has designated 8 million acres as critical habitat for the owl, and monitoring that much territory could cost millions of dollars, according to the Forest Service.

    “It’s a considerable undertaking,” Bird acknowledged. “But considering they spend up to $1 billion annually on firefighting, just a small fraction of that could completely fix this current problem.”

    The injunction is the latest development in a long-running lawsuit over the Forest Service’s management of owl habitat that dates back almost a decade. The suit contends that the Forest Service is violating the Endangered Species Act by permitting forest projects, grazing and other activities in national forests in Arizona and New Mexico that could further endanger the owl.

    The group’s other main concern, Bird said, is that the projects that already have been carried out within Mexican spotted owl habitat may have harmed or killed enough birds to reach the Forest Service’s “take” limit. Under special permits from FWS, a certain number of birds can be killed incidentally during forest projects, as long as those losses do not jeopardize the overall survival of the species. Again, a good population estimate could help the Forest Service make better management decisions, Bird said.
    Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who has introduced a bill designed to revitalize the logging industry while setting aside preserves for the owl, said in an emailed statement that taking a hands-off approach to forest management in owl habitat could leave Southwestern forests at risk of “devastating” wildfires like the ones that burned through millions of acres in Arizona and New Mexico last summer.

    “Overgrown forests are a fire hazard — not only threatening to burn the homes of the people in surrounding communities, but also destroying the habitats of wildlife that special interests are claiming to protect,” Pearce said. “While I agree that the [Mexican] spotted owl and other endangered species must be protected, we cannot do so at the cost of public safety and we cannot afford to do so without a legitimate reason.”
    The diminutive owl, which was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, prefers mature forests that are also prized by logging companies for their large, valuable trees. In more recent years, attempts to reduce fuel loads within owl habitat, which some argue will improve habitat for the bird and protect it from unnaturally large, super-hot wildfires, have taken center stage in the debate over how to balance forest management with protection of the owl.
    Click here to read the court order.
    April Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.

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