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Spotted Owl Critical Habitat likely to decrease

Published November 17th, 2020 in Conservation, News, UW Blogs

Link to Capital Press Article

Trump expected to reduce spotted owl critical habitat

The Trump administration will likely decrease the threatened Northern spotted owl’s critical habitat before the end of his first term, though the reduction may fall short of the timber industry’s hopes.

To comply with a legal settlement with timber interests, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed cutting the bird’s 9.5 million-acre critical habitat designation by more than 200,000 acres.

While environmental groups argue even this reduction would be excessive, the American Forest Resource Council — which represents timber companies — believes 2.7 million acres should be slashed from the owl’s critical habitat.

If the federal government doesn’t deviate much from 200,000 acres in the final revision, which is due in late December, “we’d be disappointed, particularly given the record we’ve put together,” said Lawson Fite, attorney with AFRC.

At this point, though, the organization is hopeful the Fish and Wildlife Service is still open to a steeper reduction to the owl’s designated critical habitat, which receives added protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“I think it was basically just trying to get the process started,” Fite said of the 200,000-acre proposal.

The AFRC is urging the federal government to exclude younger forest stands from the designation because they don’t currently serve as habitat for the owl, as well as certain “fire-prone dry forests” where habitat is vulnerable to burning.

“You get forests that get nuked and that doesn’t do owls any good,” Fite said.

Within “critical habitat” that’s not actually inhabited by spotted owls, unlogged timber would amount to $750 million to $1.2 billion in lost revenues over 20 years, according to an economic analysis commissioned by AFRC.

Under a Supreme Court decision from 2018, the federal government cannot designate critical habitat for a species that it can’t actually occupy.

That ruling served as the catalyst for the legal settlement over spotted owl critical habitat between the Fish and Wildlife Service and timber groups earlier this year.

The group’s analysis determined that excluding the 2.7 million acres sought by AFRC — which would bring the owl’s critical habitat to its original 1992 designation — would increase gross domestic product by $100 million along the West Coast.

Reducing the critical habitat by that amount would also contribute to nearly 1,300 jobs and $66 million in worker wages in Oregon, Washington and California, where the spotted owl lives, according to AFRC’s study.

“We really dug into the data and economic impacts. We think it’s a good basis for exclusion,” Fite said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the 200,000-acre critical habitat reduction, also expects the federal government will finish the revision before the end of Trump’s first term, said Ryan Adair Shannon, attorney for the environmental group.

No revisions to the spotted owl’s critical habitat are actually necessary, as the Fish and Wildlife Service determined the entire 9.5 million-acre designation is essential for the recovery of the species, Shannon said.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, has warned the agency that its 200,000-acre reduction is “neither legal nor prudent” due to the accelerated decline of spotted owl populations.

Even so, the proposed revision is much smaller than a previous reduction by the Bush administration in 2008, which cut the critical habitat from 6.9 million acres to 5.3 million acres, Shannon said.

“That’s what they think they can get away with, based on the best available science,” he said of the currently proposed revision.

Timber interests should “not get too greedy” in asking for a significantly bigger reduction in critical habitat, since courts tend to look askance at such major changes between proposed and final rules, Shannon said.

Under federal law, a final regulation must be a “logical outgrowth” of the proposal, he said. “If it’s a complete 180 or a large expansion, that’s enough to set them up for a legal challenge.”

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