Fish and Wildlife Service withdraws critical
habitat rollbacks for spotted owl
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
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
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
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,”
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
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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