Feds announce rule in Trump’s final week
About 22,700 acres of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl in Okanogan County has been removed from protected status, although the majority of the recently announced 3.5-million-acre habitat reduction is in Oregon.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced the new rule Jan. 13, in the outgoing days of the Trump administration, removing protections for critical habitat for the endangered bird in Washington, Oregon and California. The final rule is a 17-fold increase of the 204,653 acres in Oregon the agency had initially proposed for exclusion in August. It includes about half a million acres in Washington — more than half of that in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
“Even in its final week, the Trump administration is continuing its cruel, reckless attacks on wildlife at a breakneck pace,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, after the announcement. “This revision guts protected habitat for the northern spotted owl by more than a third. It’s Trump’s latest parting gift to the timber industry and another blow to a species that needs all the protections it can get to fully recover.”
The announcement of the rule notes that 6.1 million acres of critical habitat, plus 2 million acres within wilderness areas and national parks, are set aside for the owl. The USFWS excluded the 3.5 million acres as part of a settlement with labor representatives, the timber industry and several Oregon counties, the agency said.
Several land designations in the Northwest Forest Plan include critical habitat for the bird, said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director for Conservation Northwest. The new rule removed all critical habitat from what are called matrix lands. While some commercial logging is permitted in matrix lands, the USFWS must ensure that matrix lands designated as critical spotted owl habitat are not degraded or harmed, he said.
Biologists and conservation scientists were blindsided by the final rule, which was issued without an assessment of the impact on wildlife, and without clear maps showing the changes.
The original proposal to remove the approximately 205,000 acres in Oregon had been fully vetted and received input from wildlife specialists and the public, Werntz said. “Everyone commented, and then the final rule had no resemblance to the proposal,” he said. To make such a substantial change, the agency is required to notify people so they can comment, he said.
The acreage in Washington contains considerable old-growth forest that’s critical to the bird’s survival, particularly since the owl’s habitat takes a century or more to develop, Werntz said. Removing protection from these lands “increases the extinction threat to the spotted owl, making it increasingly vulnerable to extirpation and extinction,” he said.
“The Trump Administration and the Service [USFWS] are committed to recovering all imperiled species, and the northern spotted owl is no exception,” former Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said in the announcement. “These common-sense revisions ensure we are continuing to recover the northern spotted owl while being a good neighbor to rural communities within the critical habitat.”
Shortly after his inauguration, Pres. Joe Biden named Martha Williams as USFWS director. Williams was previously director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Conservation groups say they will challenge the rule in court.