Feds Propose Habitat Reduction for Endangered Spotted Owl

(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to remove protections for the spotted owl inhabiting more than 200,000 acres of forested land in Oregon, according to a proposed revision released Monday. 

As part of a settlement between the Trump administration and the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, a trade union, Fish and Wildlife proposed to remove 209,000 acres across 15 Oregon counties from an area of more than 9 million acres designated as critical habitat for the spotted owl. 

Northern spotted owl, Strix occidentalis caurina, Deschutes forest, Oregon, (c) Kris Hennings/USDA Forest Service

“These proposed exclusions are based on new information that has become available since our 2012 revised critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl,” the service said in its proposed rule revision

Any movement on critical habitat designations related to the northern spotted owl will be a flashpoint after the service declared the bird’s dwindling population was due to eradication of old-growth forest caused primarily by the timber industry. 

“The owl nests in old tree structures, broken tops and snags,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It also needs the high canopy structure and the multi-layered canopies of the old-growth forests to hunt.” 

The designation of 9 million acres of critical habitat gutted the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest and set off a tempest of litigation from environmentalists, county agencies, timber industry advocates and citizens after the spotted owl was added to the Endangered Species List in 1990.

Some estimates say the designation caused the timber industry to lose as many as 168,000 jobs and shuttered timber mills throughout the region. 

The timber industry has also sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in federal court over its withdrawal from some land covered by the 1936 O&C Act, which mandates swaths of land in Oregon must be managed as timber harvest land. 

Timber industry advocates sued the BLM saying the plan to withdraw some lands from protection did not go far enough. The lawsuit is pending. 

Greenwald said Fish and Wildlife’s proposal is not apocalyptic for the bird, since it only represents a small percentage of the over 9 million acres of critical habitat. 

“In a sense, it’s not a huge loss of protection,” Greenwald said. “But the bird is declining so it needs all the protection it can get.”

There are only about 2,200 breed pairs of Northern spotted owls throughout its range of Northern California, Oregon and Washington state, an estimated drop of 90% in population by some estimates. More conservative estimates for the decline peg the bird’s numbers at closer to 40%. 

The bird population continues to decline by about 7.4% per year. 

Regardless, the bird’s population has declined and most scientists say the reduction of old-growth forests as a result of timber production combined with natural causes like fires are the main causes. 

However, others have insisted the spotted owl is declining because of competition from the barred owl, which is a better hunter and not as fastidious about its nesting locations. 

Some federal wildlife officials have proposed killing a segment of barred owls to keep the spotted owl population in balance. Such a move is criticized by some animal rights activists and has yet to be fully implemented. 

Greenwald said the barred owl is not the main contributing factor to the spotted owl’s decline. 

“The spotted owl was declining before the barred owl arrived on the scene,” he said. 

The northern spotted owl is a medium-sized bird, with a barred tail and spots on its head and chest. It mates infrequently and takes two years, long in the bird world, to reach maturity. The owls are mostly nocturnal but sometimes will hunt during the day if the opportunity presents. 

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