FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Loggers cutting down forests burned in wildfires could bring about the extinction of California spotted owls, wildlife advocates said Tuesday as they sought protection for the birds under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The petition says emerging science has shown that the owls thrive in old growth forests that are still living as well as those that have been burned and turned black by high-intensity forest fires.
That finding contradicts current common practice of the U.S. Forest Service, which opens up some burned forests to loggers, the petition states.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Heil said officials don't believe the California spotted owl is in danger of extinction. The agency maintains that massive wildfires are the greatest threat to the owls and works to ensure the owl's habitat is maintained or improved, he said.
Spotted owls have declined throughout California by about 40 percent in the past three decades, said Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist at the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute and one of the petitioners.
There are an estimated 1,200 pairs nesting in the state stretching from Lassen National Forest in the north to San Bernardino National Forest in the south, he said.
Without federal protection, Hanson said the owls could be gone after another three decades of logging.
"You don't call that a decline," he said. "Science is telling us loudly that this species is at serious risk of extinction."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which denied protection to the spotted owl in 2006 under a similar request, has three months to decide if there is evidence to support the request and open a deeper discussion. Officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment, saying they had not yet seen the 130-page petition.
Rangers monitor California spotted owls and are currently updating a 1992 study to determine what help is needed. That study should be ready early next year with a conservation strategy complete by 2016, Heil said.
Mike Albrecht, a logger and owner of Sierra Resources Management, said removing burned trees creates healthier forests, which benefits spotted owls and people. Loggers have left large swaths of forests in California untouched, which are open to wildlife, he said.
"It's a little misleading to blame logging or massive fires or any one thing on the demise of the spotted owl," he said. "We're all working hard to preserve it."
Monica Bond, a biologist with the Wild Nature Institute and one of the petitioners, said a 400-square-mile area burned in the 2013 Rim Fire is a prime example of the logic in the petition.
Spotted owls have flourished a year after the Sierra Nevada's largest fire in recorded history raced through Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, she said. Hanson and Bond have taken part in a lawsuit attempting to stop logging in the Rim Fire area.
"The fact is that logging is going to hurt owls," she said. "It's time to give this owl some help."