U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Puts Politics Over Science, Wildfire Risks in Proposal to Reverse 2021 Northern Spotted Owl Critical Habitat Rule

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) today said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision to withdraw the 2021 critical habitat designation for the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) prioritizes politics over science-based solutions to conserve the species as it continues to lose habitat to severe wildfires.

AFRC also says the decision illegally restricts active forest management and fuels reduction activities on over a million acres of federal land that are not actually NSO habitat. This contradicts a unanimous 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision finding 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 2021 designation aligns NSO critical habitat with federal law, modern forest science, and common sense at a time when unprecedented and severe wildfires threaten both owls and people from Northern California to Washington State,” said AFRC General Counsel Lawson Fite.  “Reversing this rule prioritizes politics over science and will provide no conservation benefit to the species, which is being pushed towards extinction by catastrophic wildfires.

“Last year severe wildfires burned over 560 square miles of suitable nesting and roosting spotted owl habitat in Oregon, and this year’s wildfire season will bring more destruction to the species’ habitat.  The federal government should focus on the real threats to the Northern Spotted Owl by thinning overstocked forests and reducing competition from the barred owl that poses the greatest threat to the species itself.”

A 20-year monitoring report (1994-2013) on the Northwest Forest Plan published in 2015 concluded that over 80% of owl habitat loss during the 20-year period was due to wildfire and disease, not timber harvest.

Fite said the FWS’s own NSO recovery plan points to the need for active forest management, yet forest management restrictions from previous critical habitat designations have made it difficult for federal land managers to implement forest thinning and other activities to help mitigate further losses of habitat from wildfire.

In commenting on the 2021 proposed rule, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the decline in federal timber harvests “inevitably led to massive fuel buildup,” which in turn, “led to significant catastrophic wildfires that have devastated NSO habitat.” The critical habitat designations for the NSO, the USDA added, have “unfortunately created challenges in recovery of the NSO.”  For example, the Smokey Project on the Mendocino National Forest was delayed by several years due to the NSO critical habitat designation.  Before the work to restore and enhance habitat could take place, the project area burned in the 2020 wildfires.

The NSO Recovery Plan states that competition from the invasive barred owl and habitat loss pose the greatest risk to the survival of the owl.  In fact, the 2020 decision by the FWS to up-list the NSO from “Threatened” to “Endangered” was triggered by barred owl competition, not habitat availability.  The 2021 critical habitat designation removed areas that are not habitat for the owl and have been set aside for timber production under the Northwest Forest Plan and federal law.  AFRC says a 2020 study indicates the prior designation has cost Pacific Northwest communities over a billion dollars and over a thousand family-wage jobs, while providing little benefit for species conservation.

“AFRC will continue to hold FWS accountable for illegal critical habitat designations that harm our forests, communities and wildlife habitat.  What’s most unfortunate about this proposed reversal is that it would add further delays to important forest management projects that improve the health and resiliency of our forests while reducing the risks of severe wildfires.”