(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and multiple conservation groups reached an agreement this week to conduct a new Endangered Species Act review of California spotted owls.
Under the stipulated settlement reached by the parties in a federal court in Northern California, the agency will have until Feb. 25, 2023, to conduct the review. The agreement stems from a suit the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups filed against the Trump administration in 2020 for not adding the spotted owl to the list of endangered species.
The groups said in their complaint that the Trump administration’s decision did not square with the science. A December 2020 Fish and Wildlife report indicated that the population of the owls “warranted” endangered status, but the agency chose not to reclassify the owls citing limited resources and higher priority species.
According to a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity, Fish and Wildlife research has “confirmed dramatic population declines in four out of five study areas and found that the owls face increasing threats.”
“We’re pleased that the court has required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reassess the status of the critically imperiled California spotted owl,” said Pamela Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement. “Time and again, scientific analyses clearly indicate that this species is at risk of continued population declines from myriad threats and warrants immediate protections.”
The species has been at the center of fierce debate for decades. Increased protections for the owls contributed to a significant downturn for the commercial timber industry in the Pacific Northwest, consequently strangling many logging-reliant communities.
But habitat loss from logging, worsening climate change and the insurgence of invasive species have placed the spotted owls under the looming threat of extinction.
Different administrations have taken varying positions in the debate between the timber industry and environmental groups. According to reports from the Associated Press, documents show government biologists repeatedly warned Trump-appointed officials at the Department of the Interior and Fish and Wildlife that a decision to lift protections on over 3.5 million acres of spotted owl habitat risked the species’ eventual extinction.
The Trump administration cited the economic devastation on logging communities as the rationale for lifting the protections.
Last month, the Biden administration reversed the Trump-era policy, lifting the habitat protections on just over 200,000 acres in southwest Oregon. Though disappointed that some of the habitat would be opened for more commercial logging, environmental groups voiced relief and hope that the administration might be more receptive than the Trump White House was to their entreaties for the spotted owls.
Though the groups similarly voiced encouragement at the agreement to conduct another Endangered Species Act review, another review does not guarantee that the species will be reclassified.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s own assessments show that California spotted owls should have been protected years ago,” said Justin Augustine, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “These owls face dire threats, so we hope the Service will finally do the right thing and give them the Endangered Species Act protection they deserve and need.”