The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service ruled against upgrading the iconic Northern spotted owl’s protection status Monday under the Endangered Species Act.
The agency said the species’ continued decline warrants a reclassification from “threatened” to “endangered’' but it elected against taking that step because it considers other listed species to be higher priorities. According to the service, the decision was based on a scientific report that was peer-reviewed by academic and industry experts. The service said a status change would not result in any additional regulatory restrictions under the Endangered Species Act — nor would it impact the actions taken to conserve the species.
“Ongoing research tells us that northern spotted owls are in danger of disappearing in large parts of their range,” Regional Director for the Service’s Columbia-Pacific Northwest Region Robyn Thorson said.
Habitat conservation measures on federal lands have been working well, Thorson said, but competition from the non-native barred owl has severely impacted spotted owl populations.
The northern spotted owl was first listed as threatened in 1990, which led to logging restrictions and paved the way for the Northwest Forest Plan, which reduced logging on national forests and other federal forests by more than 80%.
In 2012, conservation group Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), filed a petition requesting the uplist of the species to endangered. Three years later the Service found the petition presented substantial information and the status change may be warranted for the species after a five-year status review.
In addition to the loss of habitat following decades of logging old-growth forests, the northern spotted owl faces threats of habitat loss from wildfires and from the barred owls — that have increased in the Northern spotted owl’s known geographical region.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s Staff Attorney Ryan Shannon said the Fish and Wildlife Service decision is egregious and that placing the owl on its “warranted but precluded” status could mean the status changed for the Northern spotted owl could take years or not happen at all.
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“An example of this locally would be this year’s finding that the red tree vole does not warrant listing. The red tree vole has already been on the warranted but precluded list for nearly a decade,” Shannon said. “Being on this list doesn’t guarantee that at some point in the future it will be listed.”
Under the “warranted but precluded” finding, the Service will reevaluate the petition on an annual basis until a proposal or withdrawal is published.
Shannon said they are hopeful under a Biden administration that they recognize a need for action and urgency for the list of species that warrant protections.
“The species really isn’t doing well,” he said. “The loss of even one or two of these owls really is devastating to the species as a whole. One or two owls can be the difference of extinction or survival at this point.”
The service will continue to review and evaluate any new information regarding the northern spotted owl.