The Trump administration is proposing to eliminate protections for imperiled northern spotted owls by taking back critical habitat status from more than 200,000 acres of public forests in Oregon.
The owl has been an icon since the late 1980s in the effort to protect what’s left of the Pacific Northwest’s ancient forests. In 1990 it was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to reduce the Northern Spotted Owl’s critical habitat population by 204,653 acres or 2% of 9.6 million acres that have been designated as protected habitat for the owl. The move drew criticism from conservationists.
The draft proposal to reduce the amount of protected habitat is open for public comment. The administration is pursuing this rollback under a provision in the Endangered Species Act, which permits such weakening of protections for economic or national security reasons as long as the species does not go extinct.
“The proposed exclusions will allow fuels management and sustainable timber harvesting to move forward while supporting the recovery of the northern spotted owl,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Regional Director for the Columbia-Pacific Northwest Robyn Thorson said.
The proposed acreage exclusion will be in 15 Oregon counties, totaling 184,000 acres on the Bureau of Land Management administered land.
The additional 20,000 acres are on tribal lands that were transferred to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuislaw Indians and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribes of Indians.
The Fish & Wildlife Service’s Oregon state supervisor, Paul Henson, said the proposed changes are on lands where it’s been agreed that it is “OK for [the BLM] to go in and harvest timber.”
The proposed rule changes are also in response to a settlement that was agreed to between the federal government and timber companies and counties that legally challenged a 2012 critical habitat rule.
Hansen justified the reduction in habitat for dwindling spotted owl populations, citing the continued expansion of a rival owl, the barred owl, which is not native to the Northwest.
“You can conserve all the habitat you want in the Pacific Northwest for the spotted owls but they will go extinct in certain areas of their range and they already are, if you do nothing about the barred owl,” Henson said. “We have a fair amount of habitat right now that’s high quality spotted owl habitat but there’s no spotted owls in it because of barred owls.”
Conservation groups like Oregon Wild say losing over 200,000 acres of critical habitat is a big deal.
“As the spotted owl spirals toward extinction, due to barred owls, climate change, and continued logging, the last thing the spotted owl needs is for Trump to barge in and demand less protection and more logging,” Oregon Wild Conservation and Restoration Coordinator Doug Heiken said. “When we endangered the spotted owl we also endanger our communities, because spotted owl habitat also provides us with clean water, stable water flows, carbon storage and climate stability, habitat for fish & other wildlife, community fire resilience, recreation, scenery, and quality of life.”
Heiken said old-growth reserves established by the BLM and Forest Service are still highly fragmented from all the logging that occurred before the spotted owl was listed. He said the reserves land have not yet recovered from the impacts of logging and are not functioning as intended for the spotted owl.
When it comes to the barred owl, Heiken said it competes with the spotted owl and has nearly saturated the entire range of the species habitat.
“Until the barred owl issue is dealt with, spotted owls needs every acre of suitable habitat, especially critical habitat, in order to increase the chances of co-existence, and reduce the chances of competitive exclusion and or extinction,” Heiken said.
Public comment for the proposed rule will be open through Oct. 13.