Agency Delays May Cook Owl’s Chance at Protection

By
Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

spottedowlhelper_1It is thanksgiving time here in Northwest California, a traditional time for giving, for caring, and for sharing. For the wild creatures that call our forests home, such as the northern spotted owl, it is a time for preparing to endure the long, wet winter. However, as we know, things are much different in the halls of Sacramento government and politics, where the rule of the day seems to be “if you aren’t at the table, you are on the menu.”

Such seems to typify the plight of the northern spotted owl in California, a species in precipitous decline with no voice to defend itself against the march of human progress and its disregard for the natural world. For 37 years, EPIC has served as a voice for the voiceless, willing to take the fight to protect our forests and the life that depends upon them to the halls of Sacramento, to the courtrooms, and beyond.

In accordance with our mission to give a voice to the forest, EPIC filed a petition with the California Fish and Game Commission to list the northern spotted owl under the California Endangered Species Act, in September 2012. In California, as with elsewhere in the species’ range, the northern spotted owl is in great peril of extinction as a consequence of human activities that have modified the forests it once knew and widely inhabited. Today, industrial logging practices continue to destroy and degrade habitat for the northern spotted owl on both public and private forestlands, despite over 25 years of federal protections afforded by the federal Endangered Species Act.

CESA protections for the northern spotted owl are warranted and necessary if the species is to continue to persist in the wild. However, after more than three years of advocacy for the owl to be listed under CESA, the listing process has stalled, primarily due to the willful refusal of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to complete a review of the scientific and commercial information to assist the Fish and Game Commission in making a final decision on whether or not the listing is warranted under the law.

CESA calls upon the Department to complete a so-called “status review and report” within one year after a species is designated as a “candidate” for listing to help guide the Commission’s decision-making during the listing process. The status review and report was first due by the Department in December, 2014. The Department missed this deadline. The Commission, at the request of the Department, extended the deadline by six months, to June, 2015. The Department likewise missed this deadline; however, this time the Commission did not authorize additional extensions. EPIC considered suing the Department at this juncture but were dissuaded by the Department’s claims that it was hard at work and a final was forthcoming. This week, EPIC learned that the Department will now also fail to submit its report to the Commission at its upcoming December 2015 meeting, despite assurances that it would do so. Consequently, it appears that the Commission will once again kick the can down the road on deciding whether or not to protect the northern spotted owl.

Behind these seemingly inexplicable delays being perpetrated by the Department, and by extension, the Fish and Game Commission, is the ugly specter of big-money Sacramento politics and timber industry influence to extend the “business as usual” model indefinitely.

Scarcely a month after the Fish and Game Commission adopted findings to ratify its decision that the northern spotted owl may be either “threatened” or “endangered” under California law and afforded it the protections of a “candidate” species, the Department of Fish and Wildlife sent a letter to the Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the agency responsible for approving private lands logging projects, to assure it that no changes in the existing review process or resultant protective measures would be necessary or required to conserve the northern spotted owl during the candidacy period. What’s more, we know that the Department of Fish and Wildlife has held several meetings and workshops with timber industry groups to discuss the northern spotted owl. None of these meetings were publically noticed or publically accessible. Department of Fish and Wildlife Director, Charlton H. Bonham, openly questioned the necessity of the spotted owl listing petition during the course of a formal Commission hearing on the merits of the petition, further betraying a bias on the part of the agency.

As a consequence of the long and unnecessary delay by the Department in producing a status report to guide the Commission’s decision-making, EPIC has been compelled to take more aggressive actions in hopes of expediting the listing process for the critically-imperiled northern spotted owl. On November 24, 2015, EPIC submitted a letter to the Fish and Game Commission detailing the long and sordid history of delay tactics perpetrated by both the Department and the Commission itself, and requested that the Commission simply proceed with a hearing on the merits of our petition in the absence of the Department’s report. EPIC is considering legal alternatives should this administrative appeal fall short.

And so, as you hunker down to partake in the wonderful feast and bounty of the land this thanksgiving, please remember those that are not at the table, but rather sadly, on the menu.