Lawsuit against US Fish and Wildlife seeks to protect California spotted owls from logging

A Northern California environmental group filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its approval of a logging plan that it says could lead to the deaths of hundreds of spotted owls and the birds’ potential extinction.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento federal court by the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center, targets the federal agency over a September 2020 permit issued to Sierra Pacific Industries for its plans to conduct logging operations on more than 1.5 million acres of Northern California over a 50-year period.

“We’re trying to prevent the extinction of the species,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director and staff attorney for the nonprofit group.

The suit says Fish and Wildlife determined issuing the permit “was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of northern spotted owls or California spotted owls, or destroy or adversely modify either species’ critical habitat.”

The suit also says Fish and Wildlife authorized the “incidental take” — or death from logging activity — of 115 northern spotted owls and 649 California spotted owls. The northern spotted owl is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and the California spotted owl was proposed for the same classification earlier this year.

EPIC’s lawsuit contends the permit violated the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing for the destruction of spotted owl habitat and “arbitrary and capricious” behavior that ignores the danger of climate change “leading to a higher incidence and extent of high-severity wildfire in California.”

“Increased forest fires resulting from climate change impacts will shift tree species composition and alter forest turnover rates, which will negatively impact spotted owls and their habitat,” the suit says.

Fish and Wildlife did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Sierra Pacific, which is California’s largest private landowner and is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Disputes between environmentalists and loggers over the fate of spotted owls have raged for decades. Wheeler said the lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to have Fish and Wildlife require greater protections for the owls as Sierra Pacific logs its lands.

Among the improvements being sought are greater habitat protections for the spotted owls and the removal of invasive barred owls that compete with spotted owls.

The suit asks the court to declare that Fish and Wildlife violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and wants the permit set aside “until the court finds that FWS has complied with the law.”

“The point is, the northern spotted owl is going extinct and likely will be in my lifetime ... if we don’t change course,” Wheeler said.