Protections for the northern spotted owl may hang in the balance until this December, as the federal government has once again delayed the decision to remove 3.5 million acres of protected habitat from the West Coast.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is signaling that it will heed the concerns of lawmakers and conservationists, taking the months-long delay to prepare a “revision or withdrawal” of its controversial January rule.
Back then, the agency announced the 3.5 million acre reduction in habitat, which was a stark contrast to the just 200,000 acres originally proposed for exclusion. Just weeks prior, USFWS acknowledged that the owls were eligible for “endangered” status.
The new delay has again stoked tensions that have swirled around northern spotted owl protections for decades.
In a newsletter, the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) — a timber lobbying group that Lewis County has partnered with to free up critical habitat for logging — lambasted the “illegal” delay. The organization wrote that a summary judgement of Lewis County’s and AFRC’s lawsuit — lodged after the Biden Administration’s original, weeks-long delay of the rule — could come “at any moment.”
“AFRC and our partners will continue to hold the Service accountable to science and the law,” the organization wrote, repeating claims that the delay “has no legal basis” and that much of the protected land does not serve as habitat for the owls.
For conservation groups, many of whom launched their own lawsuits over the rule this year, the delay is a win.
“We are grateful to the Biden administration for pausing and delaying this arbitrary rule that ignores science,” Dr. Kathleen Gobush, northwest director at Defenders of Wildlife, said in a prepared statement. “We call the administration to withdraw this rule entirely, carefully weigh all the scientific evidence and honor the needs of our region’s most iconic species, including the northern spotted owl.”
U.S. lawmakers representing the Evergreen State have also gone to bat over the species’ preservation, with Southwest Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and other congressional Republicans siding with Lewis County last month. The state’s Democratic senators, on the other hand, called USFWS’ decision to drastically cut the species’ protected habitat “as bewildering as it is damaging,” painting it as a larger pattern of “malfeasance by the Trump administration’s political leadership at the Department of Interior.”
That sharp condemnation didn’t stop Lewis County from asking those Democrats — Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell — to change their minds. In a pair of April 20 letters, county commissioners asked the lawmakers for “help in working with the Biden Administration to preserve the gains we won in the 2021 rule, which are consistent with responsible environmental protections for the species.”
Those letters also echoed the county’s continued arguments that the rule would further crush the region economically, citing stagnating wages and the closure of lumber mills.
“The prior rule barred timber activity on 250,000 acres of timber-earmarked lands within Lewis, Skamania and Klickitat counties alone, a huge impediment to the counties’ attempts to recover from the Great Recession,” commissioners Sean Swope, Lindsey Pollock and Gary Stamper wrote.