Groups sue to stop barred owl eradication

USFWS file photo A spotted owl is seen in this file photo.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to withdraw a Trump-era rule that would have significantly rolled back critical habitat protections for the northern spotted owl in Oregon, Washington and California.

Instead, the Biden administration has put forward a new rule that would maintain much of the habitat protections, which officials say are needed to prevent the species from going extinct.

Martha Williams, principal deputy director for the USFWS, said the revised rule “will allow fuels management and sustainable timber harvesting to continue while supporting northern spotted owl recovery.”

Advocates for the timber industry argue the decision illegally restricts logging on more than 1 million acres of federal land that is not actually spotted owl habitat, and hinders the type of forest management needed to repel increasingly large wildfires.

A 60-day public comment period begins July 20.

The northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. At the time, the USFWS designated 6.9 million acres of “critical habitat” to be managed for species recovery. That was later expanded to 9.5 million acres in 2012.

Timber companies, the American Forest Resources Council and several local counties pushed back in 2013 with a lawsuit challenging the habitat expansion.

The sides reached a settlement agreement on April 13, 2020, with the agency agreeing to propose additional areas for exclusion from the critical habitat designation.

On Aug. 11, 2020, the USFWS proposed a habitat reduction of just 204,653 acres. But the final rule — released days before Trump administration left office in January — called for 3.4 million acres to be removed, more than 16 times the original amount.

The rule was supposed to take effect March 16, but Biden’s Interior Department delayed and ultimately nixed the order, saying the reductions were arbitrary and excluded public input.

The latest proposal calls for just 204,797 acres of critical habitat rollbacks for the northern spotted owl across 15 Western Oregon counties. That includes 184,476 acres of lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, of which 172,430 acres are located within the Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands.

Another 20,000 acres is located within tribal land recently transferred under the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

In a statement, Williams, with the USFWS, said the Service continues to work closely with federal, state and tribal partners to use the best available science and evaluate conservation needs to protect the northern spotted owl.

The announcement was welcome news for environmental groups that have pushed for increased protections for the species.

“To use the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own words, Trump’s rule, which slashed critical habitat for northern spotted owls, was insufficiently justified, insufficiently rational, defective, filled with shortcomings and factually inaccurate,” said Kathleen Gobush, Northwest director for Defenders of Wildlife.

Lawson Fite, an attorney for the American Forest Resources Council, said reversing the 2021 critical habitat designation will provide no conservation benefit for the species, and pointed to last year’s catastrophic wildfires that burned more than 560 square miles of suitable nesting habitat in Oregon.

“The federal government should focus on the real threats to the northern spotted owl by thinning overstocked forests and reducing competition from the barred owl that poses the greatest threat to the species itself,” Fite said.

A study published in July in the scientific journal “Biological Conservation” looked at population trends for the northern spotted owl since 1995. In six of the study areas, populations declined by 6-9% annually, and in the other five areas, populations declined 2-5% annually.

According to the research, the presence of barred owls in spotted owl territory was the primary factor affecting the species’ survival. Meanwhile, the AFRC estimates that logging restrictions have cost communities between $753 million and $1.18 billion and more than 1,000 jobs over the last 20 years.

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