Northern Spotted Owl

A northern spotted owl in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest of Washington state. The species is at the center of ongoing lawsuits.

PORTLAND — Another lawsuit has been filed in the decade-plus fight over federal protections for the threatened northern spotted owl.

Nine conservation groups are suing to reinstate "critical habitat" for the species across 3.4 million acres of old-growth forests in Oregon, Washington state and Northern California, arguing it is necessary for owl's survival and recovery.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, seeks to overturn a Trump administration ruling in January that reduced critical habitat for the spotted owl by more than one-third.

Plaintiffs in the case include the Audubon Society of Portland, Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Oregon Wild, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society.

"Protecting habitat is the most important thing we can do for the owl," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. "If northern spotted owls are going to survive and recover, we must get all the habitat protections back in place." 

The owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990, and it has since become a symbol of the battles that have raged between environmentalists and timber producers. 

Initially, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set aside 6.9 million acres of critical habitat for the spotted owl in forests along the Pacific Coast where the birds nest. That was later increased to approximately 9.5 million acres under a new management plan for the species in 2012. 

The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, challenged the expanded designation, and in 2018 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reexamine protections. 

Lawson Fite, an attorney for the AFRC, said the designation wrongfully restricts logging in more than 1 million acres of the forests where owls do not live.

The 9.5 million acres also incorporates portions of the Bureau of Land Management's Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands, which Fite said are legally supposed to be maintained for sustainable timber production.

A ruling came in mid-January from then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, reducing spotted owl habitat by 3.4 million acres. 

In their lawsuit, conservation groups say the agency "produced no cogent economic or biological explanation for the critical habitat revision" and ignored best available science, violating both the Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedure Act.

"This habitat rollback, like so many Trump assaults on the environment, was inaccurate, sloppy and illegal," said Ryan Shannon, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Our goal is to make sure the owl retains all the habitat protections it scientifically needs to recover." 

The revised spotted owl rule was supposed to go into effect on March 16, but was delayed by the Biden administration until April 15 pending further review.

That prompted another lawsuit from the AFRC and the Association of O&C Counties, which claims the Biden administration did not notify the public or provide a reasonable justification for the delay. They are now asking for a summary judgment to vacate the delay notice and move forward with the 2021 rule. 

Fite said the delay not only restricts timber harvest on non-owl habitat, but hampers active forest management that can help reduce the risk of severe wildfires.

"Our view is the 2021 rule strikes a pretty good balance," Fite said. "These groups are trying to take us back to a situation where you have areas that could support careful, thoughtful, sustained timber production and other forestry benefits, or you could have it just kind of locked up and wait for it to burn."

The AFRC estimates that logging restrictions for the spotted owl has cost communities between $753 million and $1.18 billion and more than 1,000 jobs over the last 20 years.

Before the Trump administration announced the habitat reduction, the Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed a much smaller 205,000-acre rollback in 15 Western Oregon counties. Conservationists dispute the final rule as "arbitrary," "capricious" and an abuse of discretion.

"The Trump administration looted the palace on its way out the door," said Kristen Boyles, staff attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm representing the plaintiffs. "The Biden administration is taking the right steps to fix the mess it was handed, and we want to ensure it continues to do so." 

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