Lawsuit seeks restoration of bird’s habitat
By Ann McCreary
The Trump administration, in one of its final acts before leaving office in January, slashed millions of acres of protected habitat designated for the threatened northern spotted owl in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
Now a coalition of Pacific Northwest conservation groups has filed a legal challenge seeking to restore federal protections on more than 3.4 million acres of federal old-growth forests, which are essential for the survival of the northern spotted owl.
The lawsuit asks the court to reject the rule issued in the last days of the Trump administration that eliminated one-third of the critical habitat protections for the species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) protected the northern spotted owl, a bird found only in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. In 2012, approximately 9.6 million acres of habitat necessary for the owl’s survival and recovery were protected on federally managed public lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
The legal challenge was filed by Audubon Society of Portland, Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Oregon Wild, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society. The nonprofit law firms Earthjustice and Western Environmental Law Center represent the conservation groups in the suit, which was filed March 23 in U.S. District Court in Portland.
“Protecting habitat is the most important thing we can do for the owl,” said Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland conservation director. “If northern spotted owls are going to survive and recover, we must get all the habitat protections back in place.”
The drastic slashing of critical habitat protections in January came as a surprise, as an earlier proposed rule by the Trump administration suggested eliminating protections for only 200,000 acres. The final rule also came despite a FWS conclusion in December that northern spotted owl populations deserved to be protected as endangered, rather than threatened, due to continued habitat loss.
“It defies logic, not to mention spotted owl biology, to eliminate 3.4 million acres of protected habitat for this charismatic species,” said Susan Jane Brown, a Western Environmental Law Center staff attorney. “Owls are so imperiled that endangered status is appropriate, and yet the agency stripped the owl of essential habitat protections. That’s nonsensical.”
The old-growth forests that support spotted owl populations also have an important role to play in the global climate crisis, as they absorb and store carbon, conservationists said. As a result, scientists consider old-growth forests to be a part of the solution to reduce the impacts of climate change.
“By cutting critical habitat, Trump not only hurt the northern spotted owl but the multitude of species that depend on these same rare and threatened old-growth forests,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director at EPIC. “Protecting the owl also means protections for the wide diversity of life — from salamanders to flying squirrels — that call our western forests home.”
Earlier this month the Biden administration extended the date on which the rule slashing habitat protections would take effect, and asked for further public comment on the millions of acres of owl habitat that would be opened for logging.
“Extending the date for the rule to take effect (will) allow for an evaluation of the rule and approaches to rescind the rule if necessary,” said Dave Werntz, Conservation Northwest’s science and conservation director, who is based in Twisp.
The Biden administration may have the ability to roll back the rule, Werntz said, “if it was issued in a way that was not legitimate, such as if it was not based on the best available scientific information … or if it was procedurally flawed in failing to provide notice and comment on the additional 3 million acres removed above the 200,000 proposed.”
FWS may also be able to “invoke its emergency authority to issue regulations necessary to address … significant risk to the well-being of wildlife, which would rescind the rule immediately and give the FWS time to permanently rescind the 2021 rule and reinstate the 2012 rule (protecting spotted owl habitat) though normal comment and notice procedures,” Werntz said.
“The Trump administration looted the palace on its way out the door,” said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice staff attorney. The Biden administration can reverse the critical habitat rule, but it will require a new rulemaking process that requires public comment, she said.
“That will take some time to accomplish, if that is the direction the administration decides to go. We will be pursuing the lawsuit until the 2021 Trump rule revisions are no longer in place,” Boyles said. “The Biden administration is taking the right steps to fix the mess it was handed, and we want to ensure it continues to do so.”
“This habitat rollback, like so many Trump assaults on the environment, was inaccurate, sloppy and illegal,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our goal is to make sure the owl retains all the habitat protections it scientifically needs to recover.”