Could Forest Thinning Actually Help Threatened Mexican Spotted Owls?

Aug 11, 2014 10:40 AM EDT | Jordan Ecarma

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Conservationists are objecting to a forest-thinning project on Mormon Mountain because of three pairs of Mexican spotted owls that inhabit the area.

The Flagstaff, Ariz., site is thickly overgrown with trees, and the backside of the mountain flows into Lake Mary, a water source for the city, the Associated Press reported.

In an effort to protect water supplies, voters approved a measure in 2012 to allocate $10 million toward local water initiatives. The concern is that a wildfire will break out on the mountain, something that would be extremely damaging to the valuable lake, according to U.S. Forest Service simulation data.

One expert said minimizing the risk of wildfire will actually be helpful in the long run for the Mexican spotted owl and other creatures that inhabit the Arizona forest despite objections from the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The center seems to have not recognized, or accepted, the clear indications that the way to protect the owl over the long term is not merely through preventing or limiting logging wherever possible--which is their old playbook--but rather through the reduction of fire risk and the alteration of fire behavior across the landscape," said Stephen Dewhurst, an associate professor in Northern Arizona University's School of Forestry, as quoted by the AP.

Listed as part of the Endangered Species Act about two decades ago, the owls have been under threat from timber harvesting, but their biggest worry today may be wildfires, the Arizona Daily Sun reported. The species is categorized as "threatened" under the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Local environmentalists still aren't completely on board with the proposed forest thinning project out of concern for the three pairs of breeding owls. 

"It's important to the Center and its many supporters that the final decision avoids unnecessary harm to animals that are at risk of extinction, including the Mexican spotted owl," said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, as quoted by the Daily Sun.

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