Suit Seeks to Restore Spotted Owl Habitat Gutted by Trump Administration

This past December, government scientists announced northern spotted owls should be listed as endangered, not just threatened, because of widespread habitat loss. Instead, the Trump administration slashed protections on millions of acres critical to owls’ survival.

(AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Environmental groups challenged a last-minute move by the outgoing Trump administration to remove protections from millions of acres of protected spotted owl habitat.

Just four days before President Joe Biden took office, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service stripped protections from one-third of the protected habitat set aside to ensure the survival of northern spotted owls in Oregon, Washington state and California.

The move was part of a settlement of a lawsuit that challenged the 2012 designation of 9.5 million acres of federal and state forest lands as critical habitat for spotted owls. The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District for the District of Columbia by carpenters and logging companies claimed the government had designated spotted owl habitat without considering the economic consequences of that action.

Northern spotted owls are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In December, Fish & Wildlife scientists concluded that the species should be listed as endangered because of continued habitat loss but delayed taking that action, citing other species that it said needed to be reclassified as endangered even more than spotted owls. That “warranted but precluded” finding is not uncommon, given widespread pollution and habitat loss.

Even so, the government floated the idea last summer of removing 200,000 acres of habitat to settle the lawsuit. Its sudden decision to instead remove nearly 3.5 million acres of federal land circumvented the public process required under the Administrative Procedure Act and the Endangered Species Act, according to the Audubon Society of Portland, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups that sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Tuesday.

“It defies logic, not to mention spotted owl biology, to eliminate 3.4 million acres of protected habitat for this charismatic species,” said Susan Jane Brown, a Western Environmental Law Center staff attorney. “Owls are so imperiled that endangered status is appropriate, and yet the agency stripped the owl of essential habitat protections. That’s nonsensical.”

The groups claim the service skipped legally required steps like conducting an economic analysis to support its decision, holding public comment periods or even issuing findings to show the owls no longer needed the forest it removed from protection.

In fact, the service said in its decision that those forest lands are critical to the owl’s survival. But it said other factors, like allowing economic activity prohibited on areas designated as critical habitat, were more important. The government also claimed that its decision to remove protected habitat doesn’t need to ensure the recovery of spotted owls. Instead, it claimed it only needed to avoid driving the species to extinction.

“We found the areas we designated in 2012 to be essential to the conservation of the northern spotted owl,” the service wrote in its January decision. “However, the secretary has the discretion to consider these exclusions in light of either new information that has come about since the 2012 rule, as well as a consideration of relevant factors not considered in 2012. Because exclusions of these particular areas will not result in the extinction of the northern spotted owl, based upon our consideration of the best scientific and commercial data available, we are making the exclusions set forth in this rule.”

Of special concern is the fact that the acres the government removed from protection fracture owl habitat into isolated separate sections. That is shown to reduce genetic mixing between different populations and could prove disastrous during future catastrophic wildfires that risk wiping out entire populations.

In its decision, the government brushed off that concern, noting that the owls could still potentially travel between designated habitat areas, and would remain a protected species during those travels.

“This habitat rollback, like so many Trump assaults on the environment, was inaccurate, sloppy and illegal,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our goal is to make sure the owl retains all the habitat protections it scientifically needs to recover.”

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