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California spotted owl finally wins protections after 23-year fight

Only owls living in the mountains of Southern California won endangered status, however — the feds found their Sierra cousins merely "threatened."

(CN) — Following more than two decades of effort to extend protected status to the California spotted owl, the little strigaforme — part of a family of more than 200 varieties of owl — will finally be recognized as an endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday it will protect the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act, a move which took several lawsuits and 23 years of continuous work by environmental groups. The owls have been hit hard by the effects of logging and climate change, as well as fire suppression policies.

Fish and Wildlife made the decision following a lawsuit filed by conservation groups Sierra Forest Legacy, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity in 2020. The lawsuit came after the agency’s decision in 2019 not to protect the species.

According to their 22-page complaint, the November 2019 decision to deny protection to the owl species was unlawful and unsupported by Fish and Wildlife’s own scientific assessment, which confirmed dramatic population declines in four out of five study areas. The groups sought to have the decision declared arbitrary and reversed.

The California spotted owl is a medium-sized raptor weighing roughly 1 1/2 pounds, found throughout mountainous and coastal regions of California. Because they were not listed as either endangered or threatened, they received no protection under the Endangered Species Act, despite having far lower population levels than other owl species that are currently protected. Repeated pleas to afford them the same protection as other spotted owl species fell on deaf ears.

“The service has been steadfast in its refusal to do so, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that protection under the Endangered Species Act is warranted,” the environmentalists said in their lawsuit. “As a result of the service’s intransigence, California spotted owls are on a path to extinction. In evaluating the recent petition to protect the California spotted owl, the service’s own scientific experts analyzed the best available science and concluded that in the foreseeable future, California spotted owls may be extirpated from large portions of their range.”

The decision, however, does not extend the same level of protection to all the California spotted owl populations. Fish and Wildlife have extended endangered status to the distinct population segment located in the mountains of coastal and Southern California. A second distinct population segment lives in the old-growth forests of the Sierra Nevada, the 430-mile-long mountain range that forms the backbone of California’s eastern border. Those birds will be classified as threatened, an important but not as thorough classification. A loophole in the Endangered Species Act would exempt many of the logging operations that work there from having to act in compliance with the act’s regulations.

While pleased with the decision overall, that exemption gives the plaintiff conservation groups pause.

Owls in both regions have experienced significant declines in population over the past two decades, according to Justin Augustine of the Center for Biological Diversity. Of five study areas in the two regions, only one — in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks — saw population growth. The other study areas were located primarily in national forests where logging is allowed.

“Most California spotted owls live outside of national parks and so are potentially at risk of harm from logging projects (either on private land or national forest land)," Augustine said in an email. "I think the Sierra Nevada owls should receive endangered status in light of their declines in that region, but under threatened status, the owls in the Sierra can still receive protections they need to halt their decline and recover."

Augustine said he hopes the final rule will address "forest or fuels management" language in the proposed rule.

“For example, forest management can include managed wildfire which could benefit spotted owls. On the other hand, it can also include logging which would be harmful to the owls, especially when the logging (as it very frequently does) goes after medium and large sized trees," Augustine said.

While Fish and Wildlife did not respond to a request for comment, the agency said in a statement Wednesday the owls of the Sierra Nevada are in better shape than their cousins in the other regions.

“The Sierra Nevada DPS has a reduced ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions due to habitat loss and fragmentation from wildfires. However, this DPS can still withstand normal variation in environmental conditions, and some parts of the population remain in stable condition, which led the service to propose listing it as threatened with a 4(d) rule," the service said.

The 4(d) rule of the Endangered Species Act exempts logging for the purpose of reducing the risk of wildfires.

“Our goal is to help the California spotted owl recover across its range,” said Michael Fris, field supervisor of Fish and Wildlife’s Sacramento office, in the statement. “Ongoing collaboration with a number of partners will result in positive conservation gains and put this species on the road to recovery.”

Categories:Environment, Government

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