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White House reverses Trump-era gut of spotted owl habitat

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

(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday reversed a Trump administration rule that would have opened more than a third of the northern spotted owl’s protected habitat in Oregon, Washington state and California to logging.

The Trump administration made the decision to lift the habitat protections days before Biden came into office, citing the economic struggles burdening logging communities after the habitat protections largely eliminated logging on 9.6 million acres of protected area. Since his inauguration, Biden has repeatedly delayed the policy from taking effect.

Though environmental groups celebrated the rollback of the Trump administration’s rule that would have eliminated protection on 3.4 million acres of federal lands, they noted with alarm that the new rules under Biden would still carve out more than 200,000 acres in southwest Oregon from the protections.  

“We’re glad the Biden administration repealed the ridiculous and politically driven decision to strip 3 million acres from the spotted owl’s critical habitat. But 209,000 acres should not have been excluded from that protection,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “The spotted owl and hundreds of other vulnerable species can’t withstand the loss of more old forest.”   

After the Trump administration’s rules opening the area up to logging were announced, multiple groups sued to halt the habitat protections from being gutted. The Western Environmental Law Center, which represented the groups, provided a statement in which the groups called for expanded protections for the forests and wildlife.

“Old-growth forests are critical for the northern spotted owl to survive, plain and simple,” said Alex Craven for Sierra Club. “Removing protections for over 3 million acres of forests would have had devastating consequences. 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.”

Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney for Western Environmental Law Center told Courthouse News in an interview that she and the groups she represents were not surprised by the final rule. She noted that Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tuesday decision was similar to what they had initially considered before aiming to lift the protections on more than 3 million acres under the Trump administration. She did not definitively rule out further legal challenges to the decision lifting protections on the roughly 200,000 acre area.

“I understand the political difficulties that Fish and Wildlife Service finds itself in with respect to the timber industry and their view that these lands should be managed for intensive commercial timber production,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that that squares with the biology. But that’s what we’ve been fighting over for decades now.”

The Trump administration’s rules triggered outrage from wildlife advocates and environmental activists, who have long sparred with government agencies and the timber industry over protections for the spotted owls and the risk of extinction they say logging presents to the species.

A 2015 study by the U.S. Geologic Survey estimated the species saw its numbers decline nearly 4% each year from 1985 to 2013 in response to invasive species, habitat loss and climate change. The Barack Obama administration declared the swath of forested land as protected habitat in 2012, and environmental groups and loggers have been embroiled in escalating legal battles ever since. In the meantime, the dwindling northern spotted owl population continued to struggle.

The timber industry pointed the finger, in part, at the invasive barred owl. The larger owl species displaced the northern spotted owls, prompting the Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a pilot program to remove the barred owls.

The agency’s report found that a combination of habitat preservation and reduction of barred owl population helped stabilize the spotted owl numbers. Brown echoed that full habitat preservation and resuming “lethal control” of the barred owls is “necessary if we are to forestall extinction.”

Despite insistence from loggers and Trump-appointed Fish and Wildlife officials that the real threat to the spotted owl population is forest management and barred owl population control, not logging, environmental groups remain unconvinced.

“Here in southern Oregon, we want to see old-growth forests protected for wildlife habitat, carbon storage and watershed values,” said George Sexton, conservation director for Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, in a statement. “So it’s unfortunate that that final rule still eliminates critical habitat on a quarter-million acres in our neck of the woods.”

According to reports by the Associated Press, documents show Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Fish and Wildlife Director Aurelia Skipwith received repeated warnings from government biologists that the science behind their rescission of the habitat protections was “faulty” and would result in the spotted owls’ eventual extinction.

“There are some really great people that work for [Fish and Wildlife Service] and they are very much doing their best to follow what the science is telling them about what the management needs are,” Brown said. “It is a difficult thing to manage lands for multiple uses. But the Endangered Species Act is one of those laws where Congress has said, ‘We’re actually going to put our finger on the scale of preserving species.’ I hope that Fish and Wildlife Service and the Biden administration really take that to heart in forthcoming decisions about how we manage the species and its habitat in the future.”

In August 2020, environmental groups sued the federal government for not reclassifying the spotted owl as an endangered species. A December 2020 report from Fish and Wildlife indicated the northern spotted owl’s reclassification from threatened to endangered was “warranted,” but chose not to do so, arguing that limited resources meant other species took higher priority in obtaining endangered protections. Brown voiced skepticism that Congress would provide the agency more funding to make the move.

“I don’t know know that the agency’s going to have the resources that they need. That said, I am still not clear how many resources one needs to move the checkbox from threatened to endangered. That doesn’t seem to require a lot of money,” Brown said.

Beyond the classification of the species, Brown said she and her clients saw a clear path for preventing the spotted owl extinction.

“Here in the Northwest, we’ve been fighting to preserve the spotted owl for decades now. And the harder we try, the more it seems to slide towards extinction, and that’s very frustrating,” said Brown. “But we’ve also known for a really long time what it’s going to take to make sure that the species doesn’t go extinct, which is to preserve all of its suitable habitat.”