overturns spotted owl habitat rollbacks
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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.”
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