Protection for Owl Challenged : Environment: Timber firms petition government to revoke threatened status of birds in California, saying they are thriving. Activists promise to fight the unusual request.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Firing a new salvo in the war over Pacific Northwest forests, the California timber industry asked the federal government Wednesday to eliminate threatened-species protection for northern spotted owls in the state after providing new evidence that says the owls are thriving.

The unusual request seeks to remove the owl from the nation's list of protected species only in California, leaving its protected status intact in Oregon and Washington.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has up to one year to make a decision, has never granted a request to remove an animal from federal protection. Biologists at the agency, however, acknowledge that the timber companies' petition could have scientific merit because spotted owls and the forests they inhabit are widely believed to be in better shape in Northern California than in the other two states.

The question that remains for the federal agency is whether California's spotted owls are in strong enough condition for their protected status as a threatened species to be removed.

"We've consistently acknowledged even before listing the owl in 1990 that the situation in California is different than Oregon and Washington, for a variety of reasons," said David Klinger of the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Portland. "It's too early to judge what will happen to the petition, but the question about the status of the spotted owl in Northern California certainly isn't premature."

The brown-and-white owls have become a powerful national symbol for what Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt dubbed the "economic train wrecks" that occur when the federal government steps in with the Endangered Species Act to save species headed toward extinction.

California's multibillion-dollar timber industry contends that the effort to remove the owl from the list is its last hope to save struggling lumber mills in the state's northern forests that stretch from Mendocino to Modoc County.

The California Forestry Assn., which represents five large timber companies, contends that the state's population of spotted owls "was dramatically underestimated at the time of listing," and that "the population is large and well distributed . . . stable and likely to increase."

"Given the habitats the owls are occupying, there is virtual certainty that owl habitat will be maintained into the future indefinitely," said Robert Taylor, director of wildlife ecology for the association.

In its petition, the timber industry estimates that California has 1,800 owl pairs, based on surveys conducted in 50% to 60% of the state's conifer forests. In 1990, federal biologists estimated that there were 900 pairs in California, but conceded that most lands had not been surveyed at the time.

Taylor said the timber group's new estimates are based on several years of surveying by timber companies and federal and state researchers.

Environmentalists said they will fight hard to keep the California owls protected, and the Clinton Administration so far has resisted attempts to remove the state from a sweeping Pacific Northwest forest management plan now under review.

The goal of the Administration's plan under review is to limit harvesting of old-growth forest to safeguard not only the spotted owl but dozens of other endangered or rare species, from salmon to sea birds. It is vehemently opposed by the timber industry.

"I look at this as just another delaying tactic by the timber industry," said Barbara Boyle, the Sierra Club's regional director in California. "They don't want the Clinton Administration's forest plan to go into place and it is a last gasp to turn back the clock. I don't think it will work."

Boyle said the Sierra Club supports delisting a species "only when it has recovered and is in good health. . . . We have to ensure there is a strong chance of viability for the species in the centuries to come."

Spotted owls seem to fare better in California than in the two other states for biological reasons as well as differences in timber harvesting techniques.

Compared to the Douglas fir woodlands that dominate Oregon and Washington, portions of California's redwood forests regenerate more quickly and take fewer years to develop the characteristics of thick, old-growth forests needed by the owl, federal biologists say. Wood rats, the owl's main prey, also thrive in California forests.

California also has a 20-year-old forest law that discourages clear-cutting, and last year the state's largest timber harvester, Simpson Timber Co. of Arcata, agreed to an unprecedented plan that protects 13,242 acres of the bird's habitat.

Taylor said he fears that the timber industry faces an uphill battle--not because of scientific objections but political ones.

"To be honest, we're desperate," Taylor said. "We want some special attention given to California, and our efforts have largely failed to get the ear of the Administration. California is not the same as Oregon and Washington and it's time to sort of goad the federal government into reconsidering the situation here."

Klinger said the petition will be taken very seriously by the Fish and Wildlife Service because of the great amount of new data provided by the timber industry, which developed it in concert with federal and state wildlife agencies.

California is the second-largest producer of forest products in the nation, with the timber industry employing more than 130,000 people and paying $1.3 billion in annual taxes, the California Forestry Assn. said Wednesday.

Although the federal government has never granted a delisting request, the California Fish and Game Commission earlier this year removed the Mohave ground squirrel from the state's protected list.

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