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Updated Dec 17, 2012 - 4:57 pm

Feds: Mexican owl recovery could cost $42M by 2022

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The federal government estimates it will cost more than $42 million over the next decade to help get the Mexican spotted owl off the national list of threatened species.

The estimate is included in a new recovery plan for the owl that was released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday. The plan calls for a combination of more research and management that focuses on limiting the biggest threat: wildfires that burn hot enough to wipe out entire stands of trees.

Part of that management could include thinning projects to prevent more severe wildfires in owl habitat, and that has environmentalists concerned.

``The problem with this revised recovery plan is that it's got nearly no strong protections for the owl and gives the U.S. Forest Service a pass on the thinning and logging. It's fire hysteria rather than sound science,'' said Bryan Bird of the Santa Fe-based group WildEarth Guardians.

Federal officials argued the plan is based on the best available science.

``Areas currently occupied by owls require the greatest protection to ensure continued occupancy, reproduction and survival. By no means, however, does this translate to a hands-off approach,'' the plan states. ``In some cases, protection of these areas requires active intervention.''

The Fish and Wildlife Service has worked for more than a year to revamp the plan, which was initially adopted in 1995. Since then, federal biologists have learned more about the owl's biology, its distribution in the American Southwest and the shift of threats from timber harvesting to catastrophic wildfires.

The new plan states that the intensification of drought and more stress on the region's overgrown forests could result in more severe fires in owl habitat.

The owl was first listed as threatened in 1993. More than 8 million forested acres in four Western states- Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado- have been set aside by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife as critical habitat. In the past two years, record-setting fires have burned in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

In 2011, a single fire burned more than a third of all owl nesting sites in Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves forest.

The plan estimates spending on recovery efforts to be around $3.7 million a year through 2017. The minimum cost for the next four years is estimated at more than $24 million.

Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity argued that the previous plan wasn't broken, but rather the federal government did not allocate the money needed to monitor the owls.

``It's a scandal that, after 17 years, we still don't know the size or trends of owl populations or how they respond to forest management,'' McKinnon said.

According to the plan, the recovery team has documented more than 1,300 owl sites in the U.S. through surveys but is unsure of how abundant the birds are in the four states.

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