Jul. 21—The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to reinstate 3.2 million acres of protected habitat for the northern spotted owl, potentially scrapping what was described as a win for Lewis County and the timber industry earlier this year.
In January, the decision by USFWS to remove a significant chunk of critical habitat for the bird was a shock to conservation groups. But it was welcomed by Lewis County officials, whose work with neighboring counties and the timber lobby appeared to have paid off.
This week, however, USFWS echoed environmentalist critiques, which characterized the Trump-era move as a last-minute, unjustifiable blow to the owls, an indicator species of old growth forests.
According to USFWS, there "was insufficient rationale and justification to support" the exclusion. Instead of excluding approximately 2% of the species' critical habitat, as was originally proposed, the rule bumped that up to 36% — the public's inability to provide comment on that jump is one of the "defects and shortcomings" identified by USFWS this week.
The jump "would be inconsistent with the conservation purposes of the (Endangered Species Act)," USFWS concluded.
The agency wrote the large exclusion was based on "inaccurate assumptions about the status of the owl and its habitat needs, particularly in relation to barred owls," a competitor species. The assumption that northern spotted owls would survive relied on a "large-scale barred owl removal program that is not yet in place."
Earlier this year, the Biden Administration put a pause on what would've been a significant reduction in critical habitat, prompting a lawsuit from Lewis County and timber lobby American Forest Resource Council (AFRC).
In response to this week's news, AFRC said ditching the multi-million-acre reduction "prioritizes politics over science-based solutions and will provide no conservation benefit to the species."
The northern spotted owl, argued AFRC general council Lawson Fite, "is being pushed toward extinction by catastrophic wildfires."
"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," he said.
But the idea that increased the timber harvests would reduce wildfire risk or benefit the northern spotted owl is filed away under "generalized assumptions" in USFWS new rule. Also in that category is the economic impacts of the owl's protections.
Northwest Director for Defenders of Wildlife Kathleen Gobush said in a statement the organization is "very pleased to see President Biden and FWS taking such quick action to withdraw the rule and reinforce the conservation needs of northern spotted owls."
"To use the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's own words, Trump's rule, which slashed critical habitat for northern spotted owls, was insufficiently justified, insufficiently rational, defective, filled with short-comings and factually inaccurate," Gobush said.
That January rule would have freed up acreage in 14 Washington counties, including Lewis, Pierce, Cowlitz, Skamania and Clark. If the new proposal is enacted, the 204,797 acres removed from West Coast critical habitat will all fall into 15 Oregon counties.
The public can comment on the new proposal through Sept. 20 here: https:/tinyurl.com/572ny29h.