WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Biden administration will delay a controversial rollback of critical habitat protections for the northern spotted owl in Oregon, Washington and Northern California in order to review the findings, a spokesman for the Interior Department confirmed Monday.
On Jan. 15, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt published a final rule reducing the owl’s critical habitat by nearly 3.5 million acres.
The rule was supposed to go into effect on March 16. Instead, the Interior Department spokesman said that date will be pushed back to April 15 pending further review.
“Robust critical habitat protections are essential to ensuring the survival of the northern spotted owl,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement. “The Trump administration’s arbitrary and sweeping reduction of protected areas was conducted without public input or scientific basis.”
The northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, triggering protections in Northwest old-growth forests where the birds nest.
Initially, the Fish and Wildlife Service set aside 6.9 million acres of critical habitat for the spotted owl in 1992. That was lowered to 5.3 million acres in 2008 and increased to 9.5 million acres under a new recovery plan for the species in 2012.
A group of plaintiffs led by the American Forest Resource Council challenged the expanded protections in court, and in 2018, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reexamine critical habitat for the spotted owl as part of a settlement.
At first, the feds proposed a 205,000-acre reduction across 15 Western Oregon counties. But then, just days before leaving office in mid-January, the Trump administration approved a reduction of nearly 3.5 million acres — about one-third of the designated critical habitat.
The reduction now spans 21 counties in Oregon, 14 in Washington and 10 in California.
About 1.4 million of those acres are part of the Bureau of Land Management’s Oregon and California Revested Lands, also known as the O&C lands, which according to the AFRC were meant to be managed for sustainable timber production.
The previous habitat designation also did not differentiate between what is actually spotted owl habitat versus potential habitat, the group has argued.
A spokesman for the AFRC declined to comment on the Biden administration’s review of the final rule.
Western Democrats and environmental groups, meanwhile, criticized the rule after it was published, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.
In a statement on Monday, Wyden took aim at Bernhardt and other Trump political appointees for raising questions of “scientific meddling.”
”I’m glad to see Biden’s Interior understands the urgency of stopping this dangerous rule from going into effect and is committed to science, not corporate interests,” Wyden said.
Kathleen Gobush, director of Northwest programs at Defenders of Wildlife, said eliminating critical habitat for the spotted owl “ignores the findings of extensive research on old-growth forests throughout the Northwest, initiated decades ago for endangered species.”
”We look forward to working with the Biden administration to honor the needs of our region’s most iconic species, including the northern spotted owl,” Gobush said.