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EFFORTS TO SAVE OWLS COULD ENDANGER 505 JOBS

Timber industry jobs will be lost in protecting the Mexican spotted owl, regardless of whether the government designates restrictive critical habitat, federal officials say.

A federal economic analysis released this week says the short-term impact could range from 145 to 505 jobs, with household income losses from $1.3 million to $5.9 million and with rural communities and counties linked economically to timber harvests affected most.The areas affected lie within nearly 4.7 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah where the threatened bird, with a population estimated at 2,700, is found.

Nearly 2 million acres of the land is in Arizona. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed designating the acreage in the four states as critical habitat for the owl. More than 75 percent of the total is federal forest land and nearly 20 percent Indian tribal properties.

Coconino County has 807,395 acres, the most of the eight affected Arizona counties.

"Our bottom-line goal is recovery," Steve Spangle, a Fish and Wildlife official in Albuquerque's Southwest regional office, said.

Ideally, he said, it can be achieved without resorting to critical habitat designation, which can place restrictions on land uses if the birds face an adverse impact.

Critical habitat is the area that biologists have identified as needed for a designated species to survive and recover.

Fish and Wildlife listed the Mexican spotted owl as a threatened species in March 1993. Under a federal judge's order, it has proposed designating the 4.7 million acres for possibly restricted activity.

Fish and Wildlife released a proposed recovery plan for other federal and state agencies to review in December, and offered it for public comment as of last week, said Spangle, the recovery team liaison.

He said a recovery plan, mandatory for any species listed, "is sort of a roadmap on how to manage a species to get it to where it no longer is in need of protection."

"If you get full implementation of our recovery plan, critical habitat is a mechanism we wouldn't need," Spangle added.

The plan calls for 600-acre protected areas around each known occupied nesting site, no logging on slopes with more than a 40 percent incline and restricted thinning of trees where appropriate in mixed-conifer and pine-oak forests.

It's designed to gauge the trend of the spotted owl population over 10 to 15 years by banding birds and determining birth and death rates.

Meanwhile, an economic analysis of critical habitat designation said in the short run, 360 jobs in the owl region would be lost if the proposed recovery plan is implemented.

Economist Richard Johnson of the National Biological Service in Fort Collins, Colo., said 266 of those jobs would be in timber or paper production, including 151 tied to tribal timber harvests.

If critical habitat is designated after the proposed recovery plan takes effect, 145 jobs would be lost - 118 in the timber industry and 93 of them tribal-related.

But if the recovery plan is not accepted and officials decide it's necessary to designate critical habitat to foster recovery, 505 jobs would disappear, 384 tied to timber-related operations, including 243 tribal jobs, the analysis said.

It said most impacts to occur from efforts to protect the owl probably have occurred already with its listing and other forest management changes.

"Nonetheless, the proposed critical habitat designation can further impact these counties by reducing taxable sales revenues and curtailing payments from federal agencies," the analysis said.