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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. A federal judge has halted three tree-cutting projects in Arizona and New Mexico that environmentalists contend could harm the Mexican spotted owl.

WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2010, claiming the agency ignored its responsibility to track the owl's numbers in the two states. The judge's decision Thursday to grant a preliminary injunction means the projects cannot move forward until the Forest Service consults with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts to the owls.

"The bottom line is we need to know whether the spotted owl is doing well or is declining," said Bryan Bird, the director of WildEarth Guardians' wild places program. "And we don't know that right now because the Forest Service has failed and they've admitted it to collect that information."

The owl found on national forest lands, from steep wooded canyons to dense forests, was first listed as threatened in 1993. More than 8 million acres in four Western states Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado have been set aside by Fish and Wildlife as critical habitat for the bird.

Federal biologists have said the biggest threat to the owls is destruction and modification of their nesting habitat.

Forest Service spokeswoman Cathie Schmidlin said Friday that the agency is contacting contractors and power companies to let them know of the court's order. One of the projects is for fuel reduction in southern New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest, while a utility maintenance project stretches across a handful of Arizona forests.

Schmidlin said logging activities on the Upper Beaver Creek Project on northern Arizona's Coconino National Forest already have stopped.

U.S. District Judge David Bury in Tucson initially denied a request from WildEarth Guardians to put a stop to the projects but reconsidered at the group's request. Bury wrote in his order Thursday that the injunction aligns with a decision in a companion case that was more broad but also cited concerns over the Mexican spotted owl.

The lawsuit claims the Forest Service continues to approve logging, grazing and other activities on the Southwest region's 11 forests that could potentially harm the bird. It asked the court to keep the agency from approving or implementing any permits or projects on forest land in Arizona and New Mexico until the agency also prepares a biological assessment.

Bird said his group focused on the three projects out of dozens because it determined those had the most immediate impact to the owl that now will "get the attention it deserves."

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who has sponsored legislation to revitalize the Southwest's timber industry and set aside parcels of forest land as sanctuaries for the owl, backed what he called a common sense approach to management by the Forest Service.

He said he's heard from the Mescalero Apaches, whose reservation is surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest, that the owls appear to be thriving as a result of logging.

Overgrown forests are fire hazards that endanger people's homes and threaten wildlife habitat, he said.

"While I agree that the spotted owl and other endangered species must be protected, we cannot do so at the cost of public safety and we cannot afford to do so without a legitimate reason," he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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