WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has struck down a rule issued in the final days of the Trump presidency that would have dramatically reduced critical habitat protections for the northern spotted owl in Oregon, Washington and California.
The Biden administration’s revised ruling, issued on Nov. 9, claims former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith gave a “faulty interpretation of the science” to validate removing 3.4 million acres of designated critical habitat for the species.
Instead, the USFWS will maintain most of the existing habitat designations, rolling back 204,294 acres in 15 Western Oregon counties where the bird nests in old-growth forests.
Robyn Thorson, regional director for the Columbia-Pacific Northwest, said the importance of maintaining high quality habitat for northern spotted owls cannot be overstated given climate change and increasing competition from the invasive barred owl.
“This designation provides a healthy and resilient landscape for the spotted owl and other native Northwest wildlife while still supporting sustainable timber harvest,” Thorson said.
Members of the timber industry, however, have pushed back against that assertion.
The American Forest Resource Council, a group that represents wood products manufacturers and forestland owners, argues the ruling illegally designates more than 1 million acres of federal land that is not currently spotted owl habitat.
Travis Joseph, AFRC president, said the designation further restricts timber harvest and tree thinning projects designed to help mitigate large wildfires that threaten the very habitat officials are trying to protect.
“The West is burning up,” Joseph said. “Every year, catastrophic wildfires are not just eviscerating habitat for the spotted owl and other species, we’re watching our neighborhoods go up in ashes and our national forests turn into carbon polluters.”
Competition from barred owls is the biggest threat facing the spotted owl, Joseph said, and the Fish and Wildlife Service should focus on fully implementing its barred owl removal program if it wants to boost spotted owl populations.
The ruling also comes at an economic cost. According to the AFRC, logging restrictions over the last 20 years have cost communities between $753 million and $1.18 billion.
“We shouldn’t forget that families and workers have suffered significantly as a result of past critical habitat designations,” Joseph said.
The northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990. Since then, the fight over habitat for the small bird has taken several twists and turns.
Officials originally designated 6.9 acres of critical habitat to be managed for species recovery. That was expanded to 9.5 million acres in 2012.
A lawsuit led by the AFRC and local counties in 2013 prompted the USFWS to take another look at spotted owl habitat. On Aug. 11, 2020, the agency called for excluding 204,653 acres. However, on Jan. 15, just days before Trump left office, that was increased to 3.4 million acres, more than 16 times the original amount.
Then-Interior Secretary Bernhardt determined the larger exclusions would not result in the spotted owl going extinct.
But in the agency’s latest revision, it determined that Bernhardt and others “overestimated the probability that the northern spotted owl population would persist into the foreseeable future if a large portion of critical habitat was removed and subsequent timber harvest were to occur on those lands.”
“The (USFWS) finds in this final rule that while extinction of the northern spotted owl due to the removal of large areas of critical habitat in the January exclusions rule would not be immediate, its eventual extinction due to reduced critical habitat would be a reasonable scientific certainty,” the agency stated.
Of the excluded critical habitat under the revised rule, 184,133 acres are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — including 172,712 acres of Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands — and 20,161 acres of tribal land recently transferred under the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act.
A coalition of environmental groups, which had sued to block the January 2020 ruling, largely praised the Biden administration’s revision but expressed concern about removing any critical habitat for the spotted owl.
“Removing protections for over 3 million acres of forests would have had devastating consequences,” said Alex Craven, a senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club. “While this final rule is a step back from the brink, science and our climate tell us that now is the time to be safeguarding more old growth habitat — not less.”