Spotted Owl listing as endangered

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A California spotted owl swoops to a log to grab a mouse planted by wildlife biologist Bill La Haye in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.
Photos by Kurt Miller / The Press-Enterprise

Keeping an eye on spotted owls
California's bird may be in decline. As the Forest Service monitors it, supporters plan legal action.

BY JENNIFER BOWLES, THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE
 

When Bill La Haye goes on the prowl for rare owls, he looks down at the bed of pine cones and needles crackling under his feet rather than up at the towering trees where the birds nest.

"It's best to move around until you see a lot of white stuff," says La Haye, trekking around the San Gorgonio Wilderness, deep in the San Bernardino Mountains.

When he says "white stuff," he means owl droppings that stand out against the brown and green carpet. La Haye, a wildlife biologist working for the U.S. Forest Service, is searching for a California spotted owl.

The California spotted owl has been steadily declining in the Southern California mountains -- the San Bernardinos, San Jacintos, Santa Anas among them -- as well as the Sierra Nevada, and it is at the center of renewed haggling over the Endangered Species Act.

An environmental group is seeking, via legal action, to have the bird protected under the act, just the kind of lawsuit the Bush administration is attempting to curb.

Federal protection for the owl most likely wouldn't create the level of uproar that came from the Northwest timber industry when the bird's cousin, the northern spotted owl, was placed on the threatened-species list in 1990.

Logging in the Southern California mountains is limited to cutting trees for firewood. And while the San Bernardino National Forest is a playground for 8 million people each year, even recreation would not be seriously restricted. A few hiking and off-roading trails already have been rerouted around owl nests, said Forest Service spokeswoman Ruth Wenstrom.

But construction projects that require clearing wide swaths of trees, such as power lines, sewer lines, new roads or expansion of a ski resort, could face tougher obstacles in getting approval, Wenstrom said.

Bear Mountain Ski resort, in its bid to build new ski runs on 114 acres under former owners, finally received approval in 1995 after a drawn-out struggle with environmentalists.

The new owners have not expressed interest in pursuing the expansion, Wenstrom said.If they did, they'd have to buy twice as many acres for an owl sanctuary.

Hunting owls

La Haye, who lives in Big Bear City, is trying to determine owl populations over a long period of time and to calculate their survival rate so officials can understand the best way to protect the bird, said Matt Mathes, a Forest Service spokesman.

"We intend to keep them off the threatened and endangered species list," Mathes said. "Frankly, when animals get on that list, that's something of a failure on the part of humans. That's not supposed to happen."

While logging is the main culprit in the owl's decline in the Sierra range, a multitude of issues plagues the owl's life in Southern California.

Among the potential problems, La Haye said, are damaging air pollution that banks up against the mountains, homes and ski resorts that chew up and fragment owl habitat, drought and wildfires.

The owls, the environmentalists say, are important to humans because they are indicators of the health of forests -- ecosystems that provide the majority of tap water to civilization.

La Haye, in his search for an owl at dusk, navigates a woodland of cedars and firs and several crossings of a creek that feeds into the Santa Ana River watershed, which provides drinking water to 4.8 million people.

Finally, he spots the tiny skull of a wood rat on the ground -- the regurgitated remains of an owl meal.

"There's a good chance there's an owl here," he says.

Within moments, a male owl swoops across an opening in the dense forest and perches high on a limb, gazing with his large, dark eyes at the human visitors and the two dogs that La Haye always has in tow.

La Haye pulls a mouse from a canister in his backpack, places it on a log and backs away. The dogs lie quietly nearby.

The owl spots the mouse, pauses, takes off, unfurling his 40-inch wingspan, and snatches the rodent with his right talon.

"We want to know if he's solo or if he's paired up," La Haye explains.

With binoculars, La Haye watches the owl as he takes the prize to a nest high in a tree where a female owl waits. She most likely has a few hatchlings with her, La Haye says.

The owl, it turns out, carries a leg band that was put on by La Haye or one of his fellow surveyors some time in the past 14 years. La Haye plops on the ground and jots notes in a journal.

Politics of wildlife

The Center for Biological Diversity remains concerned over the California spotted owl's survival. Impatient with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's progress in helping the owl, the center filed a notice in April that it intends to sue the agency in an effort to get protection. That lawsuit could be filed in the next few weeks.

The wildlife agency acknowledged in October that the owl's populations are declining and said it intended to decide by March whether to give the species federal protection. March came and went. "It's on the back burner at the moment," said Pat Foulk, a spokeswoman for the agency's Sacramento office.

Because it is dealing with an onslaught of lawsuits and its budget only goes so far, Foulk said, the agency is working to satisfy court-ordered species listings.

Environmentalists say that, sometimes, lawsuits are the only way most species get protection. Legal action forced protection for the California spotted owl's cousins: the northern spotted owl and the Mexican spotted owl.

But the Bush administration is trying to quash the onslaught of such lawsuits -- there are 75 current lawsuits covering more than 400 species, plus 86 notices of intent to sue covering 640 more species, said Jane Hendron, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman.

In its proposed budget released last month, the Bush administration asks Congress to include language in spending legislation for the Interior Department that would effectively eliminate the threat of citizen suits and give the administration the sole power to decide whether and when a species is listed.

It also would cut funding for the wildlife service's financially strapped endangered-species programs by $59 million, or 25 percent compared with this year's budget.

The owl's numbers, meanwhile, continue to decline by 13 percent each year in the San Bernardino Mountains, where a 1998 survey found 160 owls.

"Why should we be driving these species to extinction?" asked Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.

"We're one branch of a great tree of life," he said. "And for one branch to destroy all the other branches strikes me as unethical."

Jennifer Bowles can be reached by e-mail at jbowles@pe.com or by phone at (909) 782-7720.
 

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