The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to withdraw the previous administration’s rule that slashed millions of acres of critical habitat protections for the northern spotted owl. The proposed new rule would reduce the protected habitat area in Oregon by 200,000 acres — leaving far more land protected for the threatened owl than called for by the Trump administration.

In this May 8, 2003, file photo, a northern spotted owl flies after an elusive mouse jumping off the end of a stick in the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman, Ore.

In this May 8, 2003, file photo, a northern spotted owl flies after an elusive mouse jumping off the end of a stick in the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman, Ore.

Don Ryan / AP

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This comes after the Biden administration’s U.S Interior Department delayed and reviewed the Trump administration’s Jan. 15 rollback of 3.4 million acres of designated critical habitat protections for the imperiled species in Washington, Oregon and California. The last-minute move by the Trump administration allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to reopen a public comment period in March, in which the agency received more than 2,000 comments.

Now, the agency proposes reducing the protected area for the northern spotted owl by 204,797 acres in 15 Oregon counties. This designation was the agency’s original proposal in August 2020— most of it, 184,618 acres, are on Bureau of Land Management lands, with 20,000 acres on Tribal Lands. The new proposal would reduce the species’ critical habitat protections on about 2% of the 9.6 million acres designated in 2012.

“The Service continues to work closely with federal, state and Tribal partners to use the best available science to evaluate conservation needs and implement actions that protect the owl,” Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams said in a press release. “The exclusions we are proposing now will allow fuels management and sustainable timber harvesting to continue while supporting northern spotted owl recovery.”

The last-minute rollback and delayed implementation of the rule have generated lawsuits from the timber industry and environmental advocates, as well as calls for federal review from Western Democrats.

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The Center for Biological Diversity Endangered Species Director Noah Greenwald said the decision to withdraw the previous administration’s removal of millions of acres of critical habitat is a step in the right direction. But Greenwald remains concerned about the proposed 200,000 acres that would lose this layer of protection.

“From our perspective, the spotted owl, and our forests in the Northwest need as much protection as they can get and so, we don’t feel like the science justifies excluding these 200,000 acres from southwestern Oregon,” he said.

Greenwald said the original 2012 designation should not be changed.

“Since the owl was found to warrant endangered status in December, we would have liked to see no habitat exclusions,” he said. “If we’re going to address both the extinction and climate crises, we must protect more forests from logging.”

The American Forest Resources Council along with others from the timber industry filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration in March for delaying the effective date for the rule. They argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service “failed to provide a lawful justification for the delay and did not provide the public with notice or an opportunity to comment.”

AFRC General Counsel Lawson Fite said the revised proposal acknowledges the 2012 designation of more than 9 million acres of critical habitat was an overstep as he said many areas are not actual habitat for the owl.

He also said the agency is not recognizing the main threats to the species: wildfires and barred owls.

“This isn’t going to do anything to address either of those threats. We have a lot of concerns that if this rule and the critical habitat keeps holding up active forest management projects it will just make the wildfire situation worse,” Fite said. “That’s not good for the owl, it’s not good for our communities or our forests.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to publish a notice in the Federal Register on Tuesday and will be seeking public comment for the next 60 days.


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