Feds Sued Over Refusal to List California Spotted Owl as Endangered

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A federal lawsuit filed by conservationists Tuesday seeks to hold the US Fish and Wildlife Service to account for failing to list the California spotted owl as endangered.

According to the 22-page complaint filed by Sierra Forest Legacy, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, 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 seek to have the decision declared arbitrary and reversed.

The California spotted owl is a medium-sized raptor found throughout mountainous and coastal regions of California. Because they are not listed as either endangered or threatened, they receive 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, most recently in 2015, have 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 say 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 Endangered Species Act was enacted by Congress in 1973 to provide “a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.” Climate change, drought, tree mortality, high-severity fire and logging are all listed as threats currently facing the California spotted owl population, which Fish and Wildlife acknowledges will all continue unabated.

The species prefers to inhabit old-growth forests with large trees like the Douglas fir, multistoried canopies and dense canopy closure. The U.S. Forest Service confirms that these old-growth forests have declined by as much as 90% in the Sierra Nevada range from their historical conditions. The amount of commercial logging on public land in the Sierra Nevada has declined since the 1900s, but “fuel reduction” efforts intended to stem the rising tide of wild fires have continued to take their toll on the owls’ habitat.

“For far too long, the California spotted owl has been caught in political crosshairs, while its populations steadily decline,” said Pamela Flick, California program director for the group Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement. “Without federal protections to stem habitat loss and prevent forest mismanagement, the owl will likely remain on a path towards extinction. Defenders will continue to fight in court to save this species and the old forests these owls need to survive.”

Co-plaintiff Earthjustice agreed.

“This iconic species needs the protection provided by the Endangered Species Act if it is to survive,” adds Elizabeth Forsyth, staff attorney at Earthjustice’s Los Angeles office. “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s own assessment shows the threats to the California spotted owl’s survival are increasing dramatically and that, without protection, the California spotted owl will likely be wiped out from large portions of its range.”

Conservationists have for years used the spotted owls’ threatened listing to combat logging projects across the West Coast. The timber industry has been on the defensive since the 1990s, with several of its projects being denied by authorities for the risk posed to the bird.

“Despite 20 years of scientific data showing that California spotted owl populations are declining, the FWS once again caved to pressure from federal agencies and the timber industry by not listing this species,” said Susan Britting, executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy. “Our only recourse to save this species is to hold the agency accountable for ignoring the scientific data that supports listing.”

The groups seek a court finding that the service’s decision to not list the spotted owl was illegal, and an order to reassess within six months.

Representatives for Fish and Wildlife did not respond to a request for comment before publication time.

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