The northern spotted owl has lost 70 percent of its habitat to development and timber harvesting and could go extinct without added federal protection, the Trump administration announced Monday.
In a Federal Register notice, Fish and Wildlife identified habitat loss as the primary factor behind its determination that spotted owls are endangered and nearing extinction. “It continues to be a stressor on the subspecies due to the lag effects of past habitat loss, continued timber harvest, wildfire, and a minor amount from insect and forest disease outbreaks,” the notice said.
Conservation groups decried the service’s reasoning as strange, considering the agency’s recent proposal to cut 204,000 acres of the owl’s habitat as part of a court settlement with the timber industry. Loggers argued that land set aside for its recovery wasn’t spotted owl habitat and should be open to development. The proposal is scheduled to become final before Trump leaves office.
“The agency’s announcement, while perplexing on its own, further delves into bizarro-world in that it now acknowledges the existential threat to the northern spotted owl … but the agency’s only recent action on the imperiled owl was to propose eliminating more than 200,000 acres of its critical habitat,” the Western Environmental Law Center said in a statement.
The center said it is aware that a second action is being considered to “remove many times that amount of additional northern spotted owl critical habitat” before Jan. 20. “So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has time to make things worse, but no time to make things better for this endangered species.”
The beleaguered owl has another problem that’s causing its disappearance — competition from a larger, more aggressive species, the barred owl, which spread from the east in search of more territory.
Beset by a loss of habitat, logging and territorial clashes with a rival bird, spotted owl populations fell by 77 percent in Washington state, 68 percent in Oregon and about half in California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“After a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information, we find that reclassification of the northern spotted owl from a threatened species to an endangered species is warranted,” Fish and Wildlife said. But a lack of congressional funding and other listing considerations for other animals and plants is keeping its ecologists from devoting attention to the owls.
“We will develop a proposed rule to reclassify the northern spotted owl as our priorities allow,” the agency said.
Competition for food with invasive barred owls is “the stressor with the largest negative impact on northern spotted owls through competition of resources.” Barred owls are less picky eaters than spotted owls and have adapted better to the shrinking habitat.
When the northern spotted owl was first listed as a threatened species in 1990, about 7 million acres mostly managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the Pacific Northwest was designated as its habitat.
The habitat was revised at least three times to the frustration of loggers. In 2013, the timber industry sued, saying that not all of the territory was used by spotted owls.
A court battle raged until the Trump administration, a friend of the industry, settled the case early this year. The bureau would stop managing more than 200,000 acres but would attempt to create contiguous spaces to keep spotted owls connected for mating, breeding and caring for their young.
For some conservation groups, that’s not enough.
“Fish and Wildlife knows what dire straits the spotted owl’s in but under Trump can’t be bothered to pull it out of its downward spiral into extinction,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group. “What the owl needs is more old-forest habitat and much stronger protections for the forests that are still left after decades of logging. And neither the owls nor the people need another handout to the timber industry.”
“On the one hand, you have biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledging that northern spotted owls are extremely close to extinction and more must be done to prevent the extinction of the species,” said Susan Jane Brown, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “On the other, you have the Trump administration catering to the demands of … [the] timber industry. Placing commercial interests ahead of the continued existence of this iconic species is shameful, and … not permitted by the Endangered Species Act.”