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Nick Smith: Reversal on habitat a missed opportunity for spotted owls, people


Itís often said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This describes the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serviceís approach to the northern spotted owl. Rather than addressing the true threats to the species and its habitat, the agency opted to perpetuate an ineffective and political critical habitat policy that has only succeeded in crippling the economy of our western rural, timber-dependent communities.

Critical habitat for the northern spotted owl was originally designated nearly 30 years ago, a single-species management policy that restricted logging on millions of acres of federal land. The policy upended the original purpose of the Northwest Forest Plan that sought to balance multiple uses of these forests.

Land management restrictions within critical habitat made it more challenging for federal land managers to effectively implement forest thinning and other forest management activities to mitigate the risks of severe wildfire and forest disease.

Years later, a federal report found that between 1994 and 2013, over 80 percent of owl habitat loss during this period was due to severe wildfire and forest disease, not timber harvest. Spotted owl populations continue to reach all-time lows, largely due to competition from the barred owl.

Recent science has confirmed the spotted owl is unable to persist on landscapes impacted by high-severity wildfire. The agencyís own recovery plan for the species points to the need for active forest management to reduce these risks. But this is not happening. Oregonís 2020 Labor Day fires burned over 560 square miles of suitable nesting and roosting habitat.

Considering the data, one would think the agency would change course toward more effective strategies for conserving the species, including revising its critical habitat policy in favor of more forest management that can help reduce habitat loss. The government could more aggressively expand its barred owl removal program that has proven effective in arresting population decline.

Another reason to change course is that at least 1.7 million acres of spotted owl critical habitat is not even suitable habitat for the species. One economic study found the designation of uninhabited lands has resulted in economic losses of up to $1.2 billion to our rural economies. A unanimous 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision found the Endangered Species Act does not authorize the government to designate lands as critical habitat unless it is in fact habitat for the species.

Just days before President Joe Biden took office, the Fish & Wildlife Service adopted a new critical habitat designation that removed this non-habitat and would have allowed public land managers to reduce wildfire risks on more federal forest lands in the Pacific Northwest. This new approach could have resulted in better outcomes for both owls and people.

Yet months later, the agency reverted to its old policy, meaning that over nine million acres of federal land, an area larger than the state of Maryland, will continue to be prohibitive to active forest management activities that can actually help restore and conserve the speciesí habitat. This critical habitat does not include millions of acres already set aside as designated wilderness areas and national parks, even though spotted owl populations have declined in these areas too.

Until the Fish & Wildlife Service addresses the real threats to the spotted owl, we will continue to see more wildfires, more destruction of communities and habitat, and continued declines in this species. This is the very definition of insanity.

ó Nick Smith is public affairs director for the American Forest Resource Council and also serves as executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for active forest management on federal lands.



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