Conservationists said that assertion was unsupported by the agency’s own evidence. In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the northern spotted owl should actually be reclassified, as endangered rather than threatened, but the agency said it would not take steps to do so because it had “higher priority actions.”
Now the administration is taking away critical protection, scientists say.
Northern spotted owls live in forests with dense, multilayered canopies and other features that take 150 to 200 years to develop, the Fish and Wildlife Service has said. They typically mate for life and breed relatively slowly. Threatened by logging and land conversion, they came under protection in 1990 after a fierce political fight, but their numbers have continued to decline by an average of about 4 percent a year, according to the service.
While the preserved habitat offers “some protection,” the service’s Oregon branch wrote on its website, “past trends suggest that much of the remaining unprotected habitat could disappear in 10 to 30 years.” To make matters worse, the barred owl from the Eastern U.S. has presented a new challenge, entering its habitat and competing for the same resources. Wildfires worsened by climate change pose an increasing threat.
The logging industry argues that the federal government has been protecting millions of acres of forests that are not occupied by the owls. In April, the American Forest Resource Council, a regional industry group that presses for logging on public lands, announced that it had reached an agreement with the service that would kick off a re-evaluation of the owl’s protected habitat. In August, after what the service called “a review of the best available scientific and commercial information,” it proposed reducing the protected area by about 205,000 acres.
The forestry group applauded the much steeper reduction announced Wednesday that opens more than three million acres.
“This rule will better align northern spotted owl critical habitat with actual habitat, federal laws, and modern forest science at a time when unprecedented and severe wildfires threaten both owls and people from Northern California to Washington State,” Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said in a statement.