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Judge blocks timber sale over spotted owl concerns

A northern spotted owl is seen in the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman. A federal judge blocked a pair of timber sales in Southern Oregon Friday over concerns about spotted owl habitat. [AP Photo/Don Ryan, File]

A federal judge has blocked two sets of timber sales in Southern Oregon over concerns they would damage threatened northern spotted owl habitat and the rare birds’ ability to find new homes in old-growth forests.

Friday’s ruling put on hold two Bureau of Land Management logging sales that include the so-called Big Windy timber sales in an area of BLM land between Grants Pass and Glendale.

Conservation groups have pegged the Big Windy area near Sexton Mountain as one of the largest and “worst” old-growth sales in the country because of the areas’ old trees and their carbon-sequestering abilities amid climate change, according to the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Conservation groups hope Friday’s ruling will steer BLM away from targeting timber cutting on remaining old-growth stands in its charge, especially areas damaged by wildfire or home to rare northern spotted owls that need old growth to survive.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene agreed with the group in part of her Friday ruling on the Big Windy and East Evans timber sales, which cover about 18,000 acres, including about 15,848 acres of threatened northern spotted owl habitat.

The two groups of timber sales target about 106 million board-feet of timber of various species and sizes, including old-growth Douglas fir, federal documents show.

“It’s kind of the old-school style of forestry,” KS Wild Conservation Director George Sexton said.

“We’re hoping this ruling provides an opportunity for the BLM to take a step backward and focus on small-growth thinning,” Sexton said.

Aiken’s 45-page ruling highlighted that BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with filing biological opinions on timber sales in spotted owl lands, did steer planned logging clear of spotted owl nesting areas.

One of the issues was BLM’s failure to consult with the fish and wildlife service over impacts of 2019’s Milepost 97 Fire, which burned in more than 4,700 acres of spotted owl habitat, including key habitat bridges necessary for young spotted owls to head into new territory.

“The ability of northern spotted owls to move through this critical habitat bridge is essential for the continued existence of the species,” Aiken wrote.

BLM determined the fires did not alter the agency’s conclusion on spotted owl habitat. But Aiken ruled that re-initiation of studies on the fires’ impacts to owl habitat were required before proceeding.

Also, the studies supporting the sales failed to show that logging would not tip the scales away from spotted owls and toward barred owls, which are the bane of spotted owls here.

Barred owls out-compete spotted owls for food and habitat, and the biological studies for the sales failed to address this issue properly, the ruling states.

Mark Freeman covers outdoors and the environment for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or by email at mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.