The federal government’s recent decision to slash critical habitat reserved for northern spotted owls is “without warning, justification or lawful process,” according to nine West Coast conservation groups now suing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) over the decision.
USFWS made the announcement in January, much to the excitement of Lewis County commissioners, who had joined the timber industry to chip away at habitat reserved for the species’ recovery and provide more acreage for logging.
To conservationists, the announcement was a shock. USFWS had originally proposed to exclude only 200,000 acres from the species’ critical habitat, which is smattered across the West Coast. But the agency decided to instead strip away 3.5 million acres. Just weeks prior, USFWS had found that the species was eligible for “endangered” status.
“It just gives the impression that this was really a last-minute, seat-of-the-pants attempt to just give a gift to the special interest timber industry,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I don’t know any better way to explain it, just because of how flimsy the logic — to the extent that it exists — is presented in the final rule.”
It’s normal for federal agencies’ final rules to change after the public comment period. But Wertnz said the shift from 200,000 acres to 3.5 million acres doesn’t make sense.
According to the plaintiffs, the decision is not based in science and represents an “abuse of discretion.”
The agency “failed to rationally explain what the alleged benefits of exclusion were, failed to explain its change in policy from the prior rule, and failed to comply with the legal mandate to view benefits of exclusion through the lens of species conservation,” the suit alleges.
Earlier this year and upon taking office, President Joe Biden put a pause on any reduction in the owls’ critical habitat. USFWS’ decision — along with about 100 other agency federal decisions — was flagged as needing immediate review to ensure it was “guided by the best science.”
But the move by the Biden administration isn’t a guarantee that the northern spotted owl habitat won’t be significantly reduced. The timber industry, Lewis County and several of its neighbors have again gone to bat with the federal government, this time filing suit and arguing that delaying the reduction in critical habitat is unlawful. Last year, the same coalition cited “catastrophic economic impacts” in Southwest Washington due to restrictions on logging.
The Biden administration, then, faces legal pressure on both sides. The lawsuit launched by nine conservation groups — including the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Portland’s Audubon Society — specifically cites “the timber industry and some sympathetic counties” that have been pushing for years against protections for the owls.
According to Werntz, many conservationists fully expect that USFWS’s rule will not withstand legal scrutiny.
In a press release by Western Environmental Law Center, the plaintiffs’ attorney Susan Jane Brown said the decision was “nonsensical.”
Northern spotted owls have long been understood to be “indicator species,” meaning their survival can be used to gauge the health of the broader ecosystem. In the northern spotted owl’s case, the broader ecosystem is old growth forests rich in biodiversity.
Old growth forests have also been identified by state and federal agencies as important to storing carbon and preserving water quality.
“Basically, when the spotted owl was understood to be not only declining, but actually in danger of extinction, it was a red flag that our old growth forest ecosystems were actually imperiled as well,” Werntz said.
According to USFWS’s Oregon office, the owls’ “suitable habitat” has been reduced by over 60% in the last 190 years, and populations are declining every year by an average of 3.8%. The agency also cites timber harvesting and land conversions as major causes of habitat loss.
“When spotted owls were forced to live in small patches of forest they become more susceptible to starvation, predation, or further loss of habitat due to natural destruction such as windstorms,” according to USFWS.