No Spotted Owl Snares in Feds’ Timber Project

     
     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The government’s findings that a lumber thinning and fuel reduction project in Northern California would not likely harm the threatened Northern spotted owl were adequate, the 9th Circuit ruled.
     The group Conservation Congress sued the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service for violating federal environmental laws with a lumber project in Six Rivers National Forest in Trinity County.
     The Forest Service said the purpose of the Beaverslide Project was to thin trees, reduce fuels and create fuel corridors to help combat wildfires in the dense forest.
     In 2009, the Forest Service concluded in a biological assessment that the project “may” but was “not likely to adversely affect” the Northern spotted owl, a threatened bird that inhabits the Six Rivers National Forest. Fish And Wildlife agreed with the conclusion later that year.
     Over the next two years, the two agencies consulted over the effect the project had on the owl, and the Forest Service issued another assessment in March 2013 that also concluded that the project would not adversely affect the owl’s habitat.
     Conservation Congress sued the agencies in federal court, and a judge granted summary judgment to the agencies. The conservation group appealed to the 9th Circuit.
     In briefs submitted to the circuit, the agencies argued that the claims under the Endangered Species Act are moot. The circuit panel disagreed.
     “The agencies’ newer consultation focuses specifically on addressing the redesignation of critical habitat, and does not remedy the alleged failures in prior consultations to address information in the 2011 recovery plan,” Chief Judge Sidney Thomas wrote.
     Conservation Congress argued that the Forest Service did not consider the short-term effects of the project on the owl’s habitat. The panel also disagreed on this point.
     “A close reading of the Forest Service’s biological assessment reveals that it directly and sufficiently addressed several short-term effects, including the likely effects of the project’s burning and thinning methods on the owl’s habitat and the preferred ‘refugia and escape cover’ vegetation of its most common prey,” Thomas wrote.
     The panel found that because the agencies’ duty to consult under the Endangered Species Act was not triggered by failing to consider new information, the district court properly found in the government’s favor.
     The panel also concluded that the Forest Service took the “hard look” required by the National Environmental Protection Act in its environmental impact statements.
     “The Forest Service devotes entire sections of its reports to analyzing the project’s possible consequences to the owl’s habitat and to the owl’s most common prey,” Thomas wrote, affirming the district court’s findings. “This analysis includes discussion of numerous short-term effects.”

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