On November 9, 2023, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), represented by the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), challenged a 50-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) permit issued to Sierra Pacific Industries, the nation’s largest private landowner, to “take” northern spotted owls, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1990.
Since listing, the owl’s decline has steepened and the species is at risk of extinction within 50 years. The northern spotted owl’s decline is primarily caused by historic and ongoing habitat loss and competition from invasive barred owls and both habitat protections and barred owl removal are necessary for the species’ survival. The spotted owl depends on mature or old-growth forests to survive, and efforts to conserve the species have generated controversy in timber-producing regions. Over the last 50 years, northern spotted owls went from abundant to all but absent in British Columbia, where one known female is left today.
“The spotted owl’s dramatic, rangewide decline has been charted, studied, and litigated, with ‘Spotty’ quickly becoming the most studied owl in the world. We know why the spotted owl is declining and how to most likely save it from extinction,” said Sangye Ince-Johannsen, staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “But you’d hardly know it from the Service’s decisions we’re challenging today. Even as the spotted owl continues its free-fall toward oblivion, the Service signed off on Sierra Pacific’s wishlist, trading tried-and-true conservation best practices for new and untested measures, signing death warrants for more than 100 northern spotted owls, and giving away the Service’s ability to require any more meaningful guardrails for another 50 years—likely much longer than Spotty has left.”
“The northern spotted owl is quickly trending towards extinction,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of EPIC. “We don’t have time for games. We need to protect the owl’s remaining habitat and vigorously expand barred owl removal efforts to forestall the owl’s extinction.”
In the final months of the Trump administration, the Service approved an “incidental take permit” for Sierra Pacific Industries allowing the company to “take” northern spotted owls—a legal term meaning to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” In exchange for the permit, the company agreed to some habitat protections—far less than what spotted owl biologists say are necessary for the species. The Service’s decision was predicated on environmental analyses under the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act that improperly “stacked the deck in Sierra Pacific’s favor,” violating both federal laws and jeopardizing the northern spotted owl’s survival.
EPIC is represented by Sangye Ince-Johannsen and Pete Frost of the Western Environmental Law Center.