Lewis County Again Sues Feds as Biden Delays Reducing Protected Habitat for Spotted Owl

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After coming out victorious in its quest to shrink protected habitat for the northern spotted owl, Lewis County has again joined its neighbors and timber lobby American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) in suing the federal government, this time over its delay in reducing protected habitat for the threatened species, as it agreed to do earlier this year.

After joining AFRC and several Washington, Oregon and California counties in pushing to free up more protected habitat for logging purposes, Lewis County officials rejoiced earlier this year when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agreed to cut protected habitat by 3.5 million acres.

The decision was surprising to some, considering the agency originally proposed to cut only 200,000 of the 9.5 million acres reserved for the species across the West Coast.

The change was slated to go into effect March 16, but was specifically flagged by the Biden Administration as warranting “immediate review.”

President Joe Biden’s executive order “on protecting public health and the environment and restoring science to tackle the climate crisis,” cites approximately 100 agency decisions to be reviewed.

“In carrying out this charge, the Federal Government must be guided by the best science and be protected by processes that ensure the integrity of Federal decision-making,” the executive order says.

USFWS’s decision on the northern spotted owl was especially frustrating to some conservationists, since the agency’s own study showed the northern spotted owl was eligible for uplisting from “threatened” to “endangered” due to its declining population. USFWS did not change the species’ designation, however, citing “higher priority actions” and consequently sparking lawsuits.

Now, Lewis County and its fellow plaintiffs allege that “USFWS failed to provide a lawful justification for the delay, nor did it provide the public with notice or opportunity to comment.”

“In addition to violating the Administrative Procedure Act, the delay extends the illegal 2012 (northern spotted owl) designation that restricts active forest management on federal lands that are not actually (northern spotted owl) habitat,” an AFRC press release reads. “The delay also restricts management on Bureau of Land Management O&C lands that are required by law to be managed for timber production on a sustained yield basis.”

The lawsuit requests that the U.S. District Court “vacate the USFWS’ delay,” so the change goes into effect March 16.

In their original arguments to USFWS, drafted during the public comment period while the agency re-evaluated its critical habitat designation for the species, Lewis, Skamania and Klickitat counties cited “catastrophic economic impacts” due to the decline of the timber industry in past decades. 

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