The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) is a magnificent forest raptor that once ranged from British Columbia south to Marin County. The spotted owl primarily relies on old growth and mature, structurally complex forests that provide suitable opportunities for nesting, roosting, and foraging.
Once thriving, the Northern Spotted Owl population has been in decline since at least the 1980’s. Logging of old growth and mature forests on public and private lands were identified as a main factor threatening the continued survival of the species. In 1990, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Northern Spotted Owl as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. In May 1991, Federal Judge William Dwyer ruled in favor of environmentalists who challenged the adequacy of the U.S. Forest Service’s 1986 Forest Management Plan, enjoining 75 percent of the proposed timber sales on public lands in spotted owl critical habitat, and ultimately leading to the development of the Northwest Forest Plan.
More than 20 years since the federal listing of the Northern Spotted Owl under the ESA, the spotted owl is faced with a multitude of threats, and continues its alarming decline. Logging continues to threaten the spotted owl by removing suitable habitat across the species range. These effects are felt on both public and private lands. Regulatory mechanisms on public and private lands remain inadequate to curtail the loss of suitable spotted owl habitat, and regulators have failed to prosecute logging operations that threaten the owl on private lands.
The arrival of the invasive barred owl in the range of the Northern Spotted Owl has exacerbated the devastating effects of decades of habitat loss due to timber harvest. Barred owls are known to out-compete the spotted owl for habitat, food, and territories, and are believed to be a contributing factor to recently-identified declines in spotted owl reproductive rates across the species’ range.
Other factors are also contributing to recent Northern Spotted Owl declines. Climate change and increases in the frequency and intensity of forest fires threatens the owl with additional habitat loss. Toxics such as anti-coagulant rodenticides used in cannabis and other agriculture are quickly revealing themselves to be another factor contributing to spotted owl decline.
The Northern Spotted Owl is faced with a truly cumulative effect that threatens the survival of this iconic species in the wild reaches of California and throughout its range.
EPIC’s Northern Spotted Owl Self-Defense campaign aims to protect, enhance, and restore the Northern Spotted Owl across its range in Northern California and beyond. We use an integrated science-based approach to support our education, advocacy, and strategic litigation for the spotted owl. EPIC has several ongoing initiatives aimed at protecting, enhancing, and restoring the owl.
Private lands Advocacy
EPIC is at the forefront of watch-dogging state regulators and the timber industry on private lands in California, advocating for the protection of the Northern Spotted Owl. EPIC monitors and comments on private lands logging plans (Timber Harvest Plans) that intend to remove suitable spotted owl habitat from within known-owl territories. We advocate for site-specific, project-based protections for spotted owl to ensure that not only protection, but also seek to enhance and restore forests that no longer provide suitable habitat but could in the future. Finally, we engage with the regulators to ensure that the agencies are discharging their legal responsibilities to protect the spotted owl when approving Timber Harvest Plans.
Public Lands Advocacy
EPIC monitors the United States Forest Service and public land logging projects proposed within the range of the Northern Spotted Owl in California. We track and comment on individual projects that may affect the spotted owl, including projects proposed in old growth areas, or in Late Successional Reserves.
EPIC uses legal efforts to protect the Northern Spotted Owl. In 2012, EPIC used the threat of litigation to change the logging practices of Sierra Pacific Industries within known NSO territories. Our 60-day notice of intent to sue SPI for “take” of Northern Spotted Owls under the federal ESA compelled the company to create half-mile no harvesting areas around known nest sites, and has resulted in substantially reduced harvesting of high quality habitat by SPI.
EPIC continues to monitor and engage with the California Board of Forestry, the rulemaking body for private forestland regulations in California. In 2013, EPIC brought a petition before the Board of Forestry to delete a section of the California Forest Practice Rules that has been shown to result in harm to Northern Spotted Owl and loss of owl territories. The state Department of Forestry (CAL FIRE), the agency responsible for implementing the rules, actually agreed in large part with EPIC’s arguments that the rules were out-dated and no longer reflect the best-available science. The Board of Forestry, however, when faced with a deluge of timber industry advocates encouraging it to keep these harmful rules, declined to delete the offensive section. EPIC continues to push the Board of Forestry to address the glaring inadequacies in its rules designed to protect Northern Spotted Owls.
Federal “Up-listing” Petition
In August 2012, EPIC filed a petition with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “re-classify” or “up-list” the Northern Spotted Owl from a “threatened” to “endangered” species under the federal ESA. The ESA requires the Service to make an initial 90-day finding to determine if the petitioned action “may be warranted.” The Service however has failed to issue this initial 90-day finding. In December 2012, EPIC filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Service under the federal ESA for failing to make the finding. To date the Service still has not issued the initial 90-day finding on our petition.
California Endangered Species Act Petition
In September 2012, EPIC filed a petition with the California Fish and Game Commission to list Northern Spotted Owls as either “threatened” or “endangered” under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). At its August 2013 meeting, the Commission accepted EPIC’s petition to list the spotted owl, finding that the petitioned action “may be warranted.” In December 2013, the Commission issued findings for its August 2013 decision, thus initiating a so-called “candidacy” period under CESA. As a candidate species under CESA the Northern Spotted Owl is protected against “take” as defined by the California law for the duration of the candidacy period. During this candidacy period, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has one year to conduct a status review and prepare a status report for the owl in California for consideration by the Commission at its final listing decision hearing. d. EPIC intends to be fully engaged in the status review proves. It is anticipated that the final listing decision hearing will be held before the Commission sometime in early 2015.
EPIC’s Northern Spotted Owl Self-Defense campaign will continue to educate the public and regulators as to the plight of the spotted owl, to monitor and challenge harmful timber harvest projects on both public and private lands, and will continue to work at administrative and regulatory levels to achieve greater protection for the species and the enhancement and restoration of its habitat in Northern California and range-wide.
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