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Trump admin cuts 3.5 million acres of habitat for endangered spotted owl

The northern spotted owl. (Photo by Kris Hennings/USDA Forest Service)

(CN) — As the sunset of the Trump administration approaches, it continues its rush to undo environmental regulations, announcing Wednesday it will reduce critical habitat for the northern spotted owl by nearly a third. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a revised critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl Wednesday, removing federal protections from approximately 3.5 million acres of forested land in Oregon, Washington and California.

The move sparked fury among wildlife conservationists but was praised by those in the timber industry who claim logging has been unfairly blamed for the demise of a creature that is being outcompeted by other more successful owls. 

“Even in its final week, the Trump administration is continuing its cruel, reckless attacks on wildlife at a breakneck pace,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.  “It’s Trump’s latest parting gift to the timber industry and another blow to a species that needs all the protections it can get to fully recover.”

The critical habitat designation for the spotted owl has served as the flashpoint for one of the more embittered debates around the conflicts between industry and wildlife habitat. 

Efforts to conserve the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act precipitated the Timber Wars of the 1990s as the logging industry that once flourished in the forests of California, Oregon and Washington steadily declined while hemorrhaging jobs. 

Many in the timber industry blamed the conservation efforts around the northern spotted owl, which requires old growth forests to hunt and breed as it builds nests in the holes or on platforms of decaying trees.

But some studies indicate the job loss in the timber industry was more a product of automation and that the northern spotted owl has been unfairly scapegoated. Nevertheless, industry advocates now fight hard against critical habitat designations in other parts of the country, as the battle over the status of the greater sage-grouse attests. 

That species occupies millions of acres of sagebrush country throughout the American West and wildlife advocates say its habitat should be protected from the encroachment of development and natural resource extraction industries. Industry advocates say such a designation would cripple local economies throughout the West. 

The Trump administration used the economic detriment to local communities in Oregon as its rationale for lifting the designation, which conservationists are expected to challenge in court in short order. 

“Excluding millions of acres of federal land will do little to help rural communities in Oregon, but it’ll be another nail in the coffin for the spotted owl,” said Greenwald. “Instead of trying to prop up a declining timber industry, we should be doing more to restore forests to save our climate and avoid the extinction crisis.”

The northern spotted owl’s status under the Endangered Species Act was changed from threatened to endangered this year, reflecting the population numbers that continue to diminish. 

Current estimates show there are about 1,000 breeding pairs left in Oregon, and about 500 pairs each in Washington and California, respectively, representing an approximately 90% decline from its historic levels. 

Some biologists believe that the sharp decline mirrors the decline in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, also estimated at approximately 90%, but others believe the northern spotted owl is declining due to being outcompeted by the barred owl, which has infiltrated its natural habitat. 

The barred owl is native to the Eastern United States but has since expanded its range. It competes for the same diet of small mammals, other birds and other animals, but does not rely as heavily on the features of old-growth forests. 

2016 study demonstrated that the removal of barred owls from a certain part of the forest led to an increase in the population of northern spotted owls. It has led some conservationists to argue that shooting and killing barred owls would be the best way to preserve the northern spotted owl population, while others argue human intervention is futile and it’s best to let nature take its course. 

Wednesday’s critical habitat reduction will likely end up in court and could be overturned by the incoming Biden administration. While midnight regulations instituted by the outgoing Trump administration could complicate the Biden administration’s environmental efforts, Democratic control of the Senate means President-elect Joe Biden will have options. 

Instead of relying on tedious executive branch procedures that take months and years, Congress could pass laws that overturn many if not all of Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations. 

However, Biden has made it clear that his priorities lie with controlling the coronavirus pandemic by ramping up the distribution of vaccines. Also, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump Wednesday, meaning an ensuing trial in the Senate could also take up oxygen otherwise devoted to environmental issues.