WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its final designation of 9.29 million acres of federal land and 291,570 acres of state land as critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest, down 4.2 million acres from its March proposal , according to the agency's statement.
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The medium-sized owl was designated as a threatened species throughout its range under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 due to loss of habitat. Although habitat loss due to timber harvest has slowed over the past twenty years, the owl population has declined faster than anticipated, and faces new threats from competition with barred owls and climate change, the rule noted.
Critical habitat was designated in 1992 and again in 2008, but was then challenged in court by the Carpenters' Industrial Council. The Inspector General of the Department of the Interior also issued a 2008 report that concluded that "the integrity of the agency decision-making process for the northern spotted owl recovery plan was potentially jeopardized by improper political influence." The new critical habitat revision and spotted owl recovery plan is in response to the court order, the action noted.
"The 2011 revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl identified three main priorities for achieving spotted owl recovery: reducing competition from barred owls, actively managing forests to improve forest health, and protecting the best of the spotted owl's remaining habitat," the agency said.
Due to the agency's "ecosystem-based" approach, the designated critical habitat includes different forest ecosystems ranging from moist old-growth conifer forest to a mix of conifers and hardwood trees, to dry, fire-prone forests. "Active adaptive forest management" within critical habitat "may be fully compatible and consistent with these landscape-level ecosystems," the rule stated.
The critical habitat revision represents an increase in the total area identified in 1992 and 2008, due, in part, to the steep decline of the spotted owl and the impact of the barred owl, which requires larger areas of habitat "to maintain sustainable spotted owl populations in the face of competition with the barred owl," according to the rule.
The final designation is "an important step in the service's work with federal and state agencies and other partners to accelerate the owl's recovery, while supporting active management of forests with ecological timber harvests," the agency said.
The USFWS plans to work with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to protect the old growth forests on federal land, "while implementing ecological timber harvests to improve habitat and its resilience to wildfire and insect infestations," according to the agency's statement. "Designation of critical habitat state lands, primarily in Oregon, will have almost no impact on either the state's management of those lands or the timber harvest on those lands," the agency wrote.
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