PRESCOTT, Ariz. (CN) - Concerns for a population of northern goshawk that dwell near the Grand Canyon cannot upend a logging project, a federal judge ruled.
The Jacob-Ryan Vegetation Management Project will burn and thin of about 25,000 acres of ponderosa pines in the Kaibab National Forest in northern Arizona, where goshawks abound.
In a federal complaint, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club took issue with changes in the way the Forest Service will measure forest canopy cover. They said the changes will allow for the logging of the old trees that the birds prefer.
While the official stated purpose of the Jacob-Ryan Project is "to improve habitat for northern goshawks and their prey species," as well as to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires in the drought-ravaged pinelands, the environmental groups said the project will instead destroy the bird's prime habitat. As currently designed,, the plan will allegedly create more open space in the forest by removing the "old growth" trees used by goshawks. The groups also claimed that the Forest Service ignored scientific evidence showing the decline of goshawks in the Southwest.
The northern goshawk, with a total estimated population in Arizona between 3,000 and 10,000 birds, is classified by the U.S. Forest Service as a sensitive species.
Ruling on dueling motions for summary judgment in the case, U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt granted the agency wide deference to interpret its own management guidelines and rejected the groups' challenges.
He noted that, prior to approving the project, the Forest Service had reviewed evidence that the northern goshawk population in the Kaibab is under threat.
Specifically, the agency cited a 2010 Management Indicator Species Report, which found that "goshawk reproduction on the Kaibab Plateau has been highly variable over 15 years and overall showed a significant decline from 1991 to 2005."
Several factors contributed to the current state of the forest, according to the report, including a "change in forest composition and structure resulting from intensive forest management between the 1960s and early 1990s ... combined with catastrophic fire and wind throw, and natural environmental variation in prey abundance."
The prey issue can be blamed on years of drought, or, as the report puts it, "inter-annual fluctuations in precipitation and conifer seed production."
"The Jacob-Ryan Project ... does not ignore the 2010 MIS Report or contradict its assumption that the goshawk population of the Kaibab National Forest has been in decline," Rosenblatt wrote last week.
Forest Service officials estimate that the project will take seven to 10 years to complete.