Northern Spotted Owl “Critical Habitat” Rule Aligns Policy with Law and Science

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) today said a new rule finalized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) will better align Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) critical habitat with federal law and modern forest science at a time when unprecedented and severe wildfires threaten both owls and people from Northern California to Washington State.

AFRC President Travis Joseph says the designation, covering over 6.1 million acres, rationalizes the application of critical habitat with the Northwest Forest Plan, opening the door to better outcomes for people, forests, and wildlife.

“What’s good for our forests, is good for the owl and our communities,” Joseph said.  “If we are going to have any chance at recovering the NSO, we must improve the health and resiliency of our federal forests through scienced-based active management.  Walking away from millions of acres of at-risk forests that need treatment has been an unmitigated disaster for the owl and forested communities for nearly three decades.  This rule modernizes our approach and helps focus the federal government’s actions on the greatest threat to our national forests: catastrophic wildfires.”    

Recent statistics illustrate the impacts of catastrophic wildfire on NSO habitat.  In Oregon, 2020 wildfires burned over 560 square miles of suitable nesting and roosting spotted owl habitat. Of that, over 300 square miles are no longer considered viable for the birds.

The USFWS’s NSO recovery plan points to the need for active forest management, yet forest management restrictions from previous critical habitat designations on over nine million acres have made it difficult for federal land managers to implement timely forest thinning and other activities to help mitigate further losses of habitat from wildfire and other threats.

Further, the agency recognizes the need to mitigate the threat of increasing competition from the barred owl. In the published rule, the USFWS indicates that it now has “further research and analysis to determine that the aggressive and invasive barred owl is the primary threat to the northern spotted owl.”

“The status quo has not only failed the NSO, misguided federal policies have devastated rural communities and businesses that depend on the forest,” added Joseph.  Pointing to economic research, Joseph explained: “Local economies stretching from Northern California to Washington state are foregoing $100 million in GDP, $66 million in worker earnings, and more than 1,200 jobs every year to double down on a failed recovery strategy.  These aren’t just numbers, they reflect real-world impacts to working families.  This rule rights a wrong imposed on rural communities and businesses, and gives us a chance to restore balance to federal forest management and species conservation in the Pacific Northwest.”  

Brief History

In 2013, AFRC and a coalition representing counties, business and labor brought legal action after the USFWS designated 9.5 million acres of mostly federal lands as NSO critical habitat across Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.  The coalition’s legal action focused on the inclusion of millions of acres of forests not occupied by the species that are not suitable habitat for the species, including over 1.1 million acres of federal lands designated for active forest management activities and where no owls and no habitat are present.  It also addressed the USFWS’s failure to comply with the ESA requirement to take into account the impacts of designation, including economic and other impacts.

In 2018, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision found the Endangered Species Act (ESA) does not authorize the government to designate lands as critical habitat unless it is in fact habitat for the species.  The Supreme Court also ruled that courts can review government evaluations of the impact of designating critical habitat, which the lower courts had refused to allow for over 30 years.

To resolve the litigation and inconsistency with the Supreme Court decision, the USFWS agreed in April to reevaluate its NSO critical habitat designations, which was followed by a public rulemaking process.

About the American Forest Resource Council

AFRC is a regional trade association representing over 50 forest product businesses and forest landowners whose purpose is to advocate for sustained yield timber harvests on public timberlands throughout the West to enhance forest health and resistance to fire, insects, and disease. We do this by promoting active management to attain productive public forests, protect adjoining private forests, and assure community stability. We work to improve federal and state laws, regulations, policies and decisions regarding access to and management of public forest lands and protection of all forest lands. AFRC strongly believes that healthy managed forests are essential to the integrity of both ecosystems and communities. For more information, visit