After more than a decade of government protection, the northern spotted owl continues on a downward trajectory, raising the specter of the dark-brown, winged species being listed as endangered.

Dominick DellaSala of Ashland, one of the nation's leading forest ecologists, warned the northern spotted owl faces "multiple threats," not the least of which is a loss of habitat on nonfederal lands and an invasion of the barred owl, which kills its tiny, native cousin.

That comes at a time when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reducing old-growth forest protections, and the Bush administration is wanting to slash the amount of federal lands designated as "critical habitat" for the owl, said DellaSala, an executive director of the Ashland-based National Center for Conservation Science and Policy.

"Based on science alone, if the (downward) trend in owl populations continues, then I think there will be scientific justification for up-listing the species to endangered," he said in an interview Wednesday, pointing to studies that indicate the owls' numbers are falling 3.7 percent annually.

With all the uncertainties facing the northern spotted owl, DellaSala said it is crucial that the federal government continue to protect the fragile species' nesting and feeding areas, which lie particularly in old-growth forests.

"There are a lot of different ways we can get our timber volume without having to log our last remaining stands of old-growth forests," he said.

The listing of the spotted owl would likely reignite the tumultuous timber-owl wars that beset Southern Oregon after the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990, he said.

"And nobody wants to repeat that," DellaSala said of the bitter fights that raged between conservationists trying to protect tracts of ancient trees and the logging industry, which saw its industry collapsing as federal officials worked to save the bird.

Striking a compromise by protecting the biodiversity of old-growth forests and providing a process for a modest timber harvest, the Clinton administration adopted the still-controversial Northwest Forest Plan in 1994.

Now in the works is a federal recovery plan aimed at boosting the spotted owl's numbers, but DellaSala said the plan is based on the Bush administration's desire to ramp up timber harvesting in the Pacific Northwest.

"When you have a species that's facing multiple threats, you want to make sure the species has sufficient habitat to maintain itself," said DellaSala, who sits on the 12-member federal Owl Recovery Team.

Deriding the proposed owl recovery plan as the product of White House interference, DellaSala said the draft plan that he helped develop should be jettisoned and the Owl Recovery Team disbanded to make room for "independent owl scientists."

"When a species is circling the drain like the spotted owl is, you want to make sure you have the best science and the best scientists" on the case, he said.

Joan Jewett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, said when the Northwest Forest Plan was implemented, scientists predicted that the number of northern spotted owls would continue to decline for about a decade.

But with the more aggressive barred owl migrating from the East Coast across Canada and down into the Pacific Northwest, the spotted owl's recovery has been slowed.

While there are fewer spotted owls spread across their 25 million-acre range &

in Washington, Oregon and northern California &

they are dispersed throughout their territory, she said.

Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Salem-based Associated Oregon Loggers, is among those hoping the final recovery plan protects the owl and takes into account shifts in scientific opinion.

"The landscape has changed literally and figuratively," Geisinger said, given the spate of recent wildfires and flood of owl research. He questioned whether strict federal logging restrictions could still be justified scientifically.

"Over time, we've learned a lot more about the owl and its habitat requirements, its behavior and what kind of forest structure it likes to have," Geisinger said, pointing to findings that suggest the winged species may actually not be as dependent on old-growth trees, as previously believed.

"The economic damage has come and gone," he said. "We know tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, we know a couple hundred mills went out of business, and we know some rural communities were devastated economically."

If there is any bitterness by the logging industry, he said, it's that there is some evidence that the protections afforded the owl were "excessive, and that a lot of the economic impact that occurred may not have been necessary."

Joseph Vaile, a former federal wildlife biologist and now an organizer at the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, said rather than increasing the old-growth timber harvest, which would be "counterproductive" to the owl's recovery, sustainable practices such as tree-thinning should be sought.

A so-called "variable density prescription," he said, would not only help keep foresters in work, but also reduce the risk of forest fires, which often destroys precious spotted owl habitat.

"That would be a win-win," he said.

covers government for the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at csrizo@hotmail.com.