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Feds reverse Trump-era rule that dramatically reduced critical habitat for spotted owls

Northern spotted owl fledgling
Zia Fukuda, Bureau of Land Management
Northern spotted owl fledgling

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Tuesday a decision to maintain protections on over 3 million acres of forest habitat deemed critical for the survival of the threatened northern spotted owl.

Those protections, in parts of Washington, Oregon and Northern California, were removed in the waning days of the Trump administration. Tuesday’s revised designation under the Endangered Species Act determined that removing those protections would cost the owl critical habitat necessary for its continued survival.

“The Service found that the 3.4 million acres excluded in the January 15, 2021 revised designation would have left too little habitat to conserve the species, ultimately resulting in the extinction of the northern spotted owl,” the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in a statement.

The final rule, which was created on July 20, 2021, will still exclude protections on approximately 204,294 acres in 15 western Oregon counties: Benton, Clackamas, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Multnomah, Polk, Tillamook, Washington and Yamhill.

The new proposal removes protections on approximately 20,000 acres of lands recently transferred to several native tribes under the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act: the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

Still, the Service’s revised designation drew criticism from Oregon counties that have historically relied on timber as a critical part of their economies, as well as the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry association.

“The agency chose to perpetuate a flawed and unlawful critical habitat policy that has devastated our rural communities while failing to reverse the decline of this species,” wrote AFRC President Travis Joseph.

The group warned that the new designation will restrict forest management activities that mitigate the risk of wildfires and said Fish and Wildlife should instead focus on the removal of the barred owl, a non-native species that competes with northern spotted owls for habitat and food.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit, welcomed the revised protections but said the remaining 204,000 acres should not have been excluded from protections.

“The spotted owl and hundreds of other vulnerable species can’t withstand the loss of more old forest,” wrote Noah Greenwald, the group’s endangered species director.

The final rule will be published on Nov. 10 and will then take effect in 30 days.

Correction: A previous version of this article misnamed the federal agency in this story as the U.S. Forest Service. It is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.