A member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's northern spotted owl recovery team says the agency is outsourcing its responsibilities with its plan to hire a private contractor to work on its final northern spotted owl recovery plan.

A member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's northern spotted owl recovery team says the agency is outsourcing its responsibilities with its plan to hire a private contractor to work on its final northern spotted owl recovery plan.

"Outsourcing science to private contractors sounds like a recipe for more of the same — politics trumping science to increase logging of old-growth forests in the Northwest," said team member Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist from Ashland who has a been a vocal critic of the draft plan released in April.

"The current (draft) recovery plan is part of a long record of political interference in science by this administration," he added. "Anything less than going back to the drawing board would fly in the face of independent scientific peer reviews that called for scraping the current plan and starting over."

He was reacting to a Wednesday announcement by Ren Lohoefener, the USF&WS's Pacific regional director, that the agency plans to hire a private contractor to help analyze public and peer review comments on its final northern spotted owl recovery plan.

The draft plan was released in April. The owl, considered an indicator species in Northwest forests, is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The contractor, along with multiple work groups, will be needed to address in a timely manner more than 80,000 public comments along with scientific peer reviews the agency has received concerning the future of the threatened owl, Lohoefener explained.

"The service is committed to developing the best final recovery plan possible for the northern spotted owl, one that incorporates the latest science and most effective current management practices," he said in a prepared statement. "This strategy offers us a way to move forward and take action to achieve recovery of the owl."

Lohoefener also thanked members of the recovery team in working for nearly a year to develop the draft recovery plan.

"They are to be commended for their contributions to northern spotted owl recovery," he said, adding that members of the original team may be consulted as the final plan is developed.

The agency will also rely on members of the interagency staff team, consisting of scientists from USF&WS, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which helped to develop the draft plan, he said.

In addition, the agency plans to convene science work groups to focus on key areas of owl recovery, including habitat management, competition from barred owls and wildfires. The goal is to complete the final recovery plan by April.

DellaSala, executive director of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy in Ashland, said the original draft plan was derailed by political interference from the Washington Oversight Committee, some of whom were political appointees, including Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture.

Adminsitration officials have said his charges are unfounded.

DellaSala said the original draft plan for the spotted owl called for fixed habitat reserves but was rejected by the oversight committee. The oversight committee then directed the recovery team and federal agency staff to rewrite the plan and include an alternative that did not rely on fixed habitat reserves, he added.

The two options contained in the draft included one which created 18 study areas in which 12 to 32 barred owls would be killed because they are believed to be pushing spotted owls out of their habitat. That option was preferred by the oversight committee. The other option contained two different approaches to conserving blocks of spotted owl habitat.

However, neither option passed scientific peer review because both drastically reduced spotted owl habitat, DellaSala stressed.

"To continue this failed process by outsourcing is very odd," said DellaSala, adding he made his views known to Lohoefener, who called him Wednesday afternoon following the announcement.

"We'll be watching this process to see if it falls victim to the same kind of political interference," DellaSala said. "This is significant because the plan could topple old-growth timber protection provided under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.