(CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday it will not list the California spotted owl as an endangered species.
“Through consultation with experts, reviewing site surveys and examining scientific literature, the Service determined that California spotted owls continue to inhabit their historic range, and the species is not in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, nor is it likely to become so in the foreseeable future,” the agency said in a release issued Thursday.
The announcement drew the ire of conservation organizations that continue to insist the bird of prey’s population is dwindling due to habitat destruction in the forests of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
“We’re disappointed that the Trump administration is allowing these special birds to continue to be threatened by logging, fire and development,” said Patrick Sullivan with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re evaluating this terrible decision to see if a legal challenge is appropriate.”
The spotted owl is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Its original listing as such in the 1990s remains a watershed moment in the environmental movement, as conservationists used the threatened listing as a means to attack timber projects throughout California, Oregon and Washington.
The spotted owl, a nocturnal, sit-and-wait predator, feeds on its prey by swooping out of trees at night, taking small mammals and smaller birds by surprise.
It doesn’t build nests. Instead, the owl uses holes made in trees or deadwood or inhabiting nests abandoned by other predatory birds. Owls frequently use the same nests for generations.
For this reason, old-growth forests dominated by Douglas fir and western hemlock provide habitat vital to its survival. These are the same forests coveted by the timber industry, putting environmentalists and the industry at odds.
Since the 1990s, the timber industry has had to account for how it will protect the spotted owl in its harvest plans, meaning several of its projects have been denied by various public agencies for risk of further endangering the threatened bird.
Some in the timber industry blame the bird’s threatened status for the decline of the industry throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. The fight fomented a backlash against the Endangered Species Act among industry leaders and has led to fears that the battle over habitat for the western sage grouse could similarly constrain companies who rely on natural resource extraction throughout the American West.
Environmentalists say the principle of biological diversity is the more important consideration.
As it relates to the spotted owl, most studies agree that its population is in decline and habitat degradation is the primary reason.
Nevertheless, in recent years, some biologists have broke with the consensus and said the spotted owl’s population decline is a result of being outcompeted by the barred owl, which is more aggressive and more adaptable to a range of forest types.
In a controversial program, federal officials have begun to shoot barred owls throughout the Pacific Northwest, prompting questions about the extent of human intervention in intraspecies competition.