U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Northern Spotted Owl Critical Habitat Designation Fails Our Forests, Communities and the Species Itself

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) today said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) critical habitat designation for the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO) illegally designates over a million acres of federal land that are not NSO habitat. This designation restricts active forest management and fuels activities designed to mitigate risk of catastrophic wildfire. In doing so, AFRC said the agency is ignoring the two biggest threats to the species: wildfires and the invasive barred owl.

“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service missed an opportunity to pursue effective, science-based solutions to recover NSO populations while reducing wildfire risks to owl habitat. Instead, the agency chose to perpetuate a flawed and unlawful critical habitat policy that has devastated our rural communities while failing to reverse the decline of this species,” said AFRC President Travis Joseph.

“The West is burning up.  Every year, catastrophic wildfires are not just eviscerating habitat for the spotted owl and other species, we’re watching our neighborhoods go up in ashes and our national forests turn into carbon polluters.  And the response from agency bureaucrats to this crisis is to lock up more federal land to make proactive, science-based management more difficult under the guise of ‘saving’ the spotted owl?  Let’s not kid ourselves, continuing to implement the same tired and failed policies of the last 25 years is a recipe for disaster for our national forests, public safety, and certainly for the spotted owl.”

The new critical habitat rule disregards a unanimous 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision finding the Endangered Species Act does not authorize the government to designate lands as critical habitat unless it is in fact habitat for the species.

In April 2020, AFRC and a coalition representing counties, business and labor reached a settlement agreement with FWS over the 2012 designation that included millions of acres of forests not occupied by the species. That settlement initiated a public rulemaking process that resulted in a new rule last January (January 2021 Rule), which excluded non-habitat from critical habitat and other federal lands that are required to be managed for timber production. AFRC, joined by the Association of O&C Counties and counties in Washington, Oregon, and California, challenged FWS’s unlawful delay of the effective date of the January 2021 Rule.  That case is still pending before Judge Leon in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

FWS should focus on the real threats to the species and its habitat. Recent science has concluded the NSO is unable to persist on landscapes impacted by high-severity wildfire, and FWS’s own NSO Recovery Plan points to the need for active forest management to reduce these risks.  However, forest management restrictions from previous critical habitat designations have made it difficult for federal land managers to effectively implement forest thinning and other forest management activities to help mitigate further losses of habitat from wildfire.

In a 2019 Species Assessment, the agency recognized that competition from the invasive barred owl is the primary threat to the survival and recovery of the NSO itself. Recent science suggests barred owls and NSOs are unable to coexist in a landscape “where high quality habitat is readily available.” To conserve the species, FWS should focus on fully-implementing its Barred Owl removal program, while increasing opportunities for science-based active management that reduces the impact of high-severity wildfires to NSO habitat.

“We shouldn’t forget that families and workers have suffered significantly as a result of past critical habitat designations.  Economic research suggests the prior critical habitat designations have cost Pacific Northwest communities over a billion dollars and over a thousand family-wage jobs, while providing little benefit for species conservation. Though we are disappointed in the agency’s critical habitat designation, AFRC and our coalition partners will continue to hold the federal government accountable for this scientifically flawed and illegal policy and process,” Joseph said.