ANCHORAGE - A bird of prey found along North America's northern West Coast warrants protection as an endangered species in Canada but not in Alaska, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided Thursday.
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Environmental groups that sued the agency for protections for the Queen Charlotte goshawk called the decision bad science and a bad interpretation of federal law. They vowed to return to court to have Alaska birds protected.
"We think it's illegal, and organizationally, when we think things are illegal, we go to court and try to get a judge to agree with us," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The quest to list the birds under the Endangered Species Act has been going on since 1994. The Fish and Wildlife Service's latest response came after its previous determination denying protections was rejected in court.
Queen Charlotte goshawks are one of three subspecies that inhabit the Northern hemisphere, according to the listing petition. They're found from Washington's Olympic Peninsula to Southeast Alaska south of Juneau.
Queen Charlotte goshawks are 22 to 26 inches long. They have short wingspans and long tails that help them maneuver in forests. Feather guards protect their eyes from stray branches.
They hunt relatively large prey. In Alaska, in the absence of snowshoe hares, rabbits and chipmunks, they target grouse and ptarmigan. They are fierce defenders of nests and will attack wolves, bears and humans that stray close to their nests, according to the listing petition.
Cummings said up to 500 breeding pairs remain in North America and most are in southeast Alaska.
Logging of old growth forest is considered the main threat to the Queen Charlotte goshawks, said Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore.
"This is a species that hunts under the forest canopy," he said. "Going in there and cutting down substantial amounts of trees is not something that would be conducive to its survival," Greenwald said.
Owen J. Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, a timber trade association, praised the decision as one less worry for Alaska's ailing timber industry.
"We don't have enough timber to operate now," he said.
He said protections already are in place for the birds and that additional revisions are expected in the U.S. Forest Service management plan for the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest.
The environmental groups took issue with the Fish and Wildlife Service determination that the Alaska and British Columbia ranges are distinct populations and therefore qualify for individual consideration.
The agency concluded that it could support listing British Columbia birds as threatened or endangered. The same could not be said for the Alaska birds, given conservation measures in place in the Tongass, the world's largest temperate rain forest. Those measures include no-harvest status in substantial areas and guidelines for goshawk protection by loggers in the parts of the forest open for cutting.
The decision Thursday means the agency will have up to a year to determine whether the birds should be listed as endangered or threatened.
Cummings said it was troubling that the agency would list only a portion of an imperiled population. It's a dangerous precedent that works to exclude as many areas as possible from the Endangered Species Act, he said.
"We believe the law says, if this species is to survive, it has to be protected in Alaska, where the core remaining population is," Cummings said.
Listing the birds as endangered in another country gives them no direct protection through U.S. management but could affect timber imports. Cummings said mismanagement in the Tongass, where insufficient protections are likely to be weakened, do not ensure survival of the goshawks.
"That's where it needs to be protected and that's where the Department of Interior has completely abdicated its responsibility," Cummings said.