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Fish and Wildlife Service Says Goodbye to Spotted Owl Assistance in California

Photo by Jeff Muskgrave

So long, and thanks for all the technical assistance! The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced it will no longer provide technical assistance to private timberland owners in California to ensure Timber Harvest Plans and other logging plans avoid “take” of the federally-threatened northern spotted owl. The announcement closes a 19-year chapter in which the federal wildlife agency has provided private timberland owners and the California Department of Forestry (CAL FIRE) with biological review of THPs and other state-sanctioned logging permitting frameworks aimed at avoiding “take” of the spotted owl.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service originally listed the spotted owl as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1990, and began formally offering assistance to CAL FIRE and private timberland owners in California as of 1999 at the request of then-California Secretary of Natural Resources, Mary Nichols. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to scale back its technical assistance program for private timberlands in California in 2008, handing the brunt of the day-to-day work of ensuring spotted owl “take” avoidance over to CAL FIRE, the lead agency responsible for approval of private timberland THPs and other similar logging projects that could adversely impact northern spotted owls.

The technical assistance program never received a fully-funded mandate or line-item in the agency’s budget, and with a Republican President and Congress in D.C. until the election of former President Obama, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s program was targeted and slowly began to be dismantled.

The scale-back of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 created a vacuum of checks and balances on private timberlands “take” avoidance assurance in California, and some large industrial landowners, most notably Sierra Pacific Industries and Fruit Growers Supply Company, took full advantage by conducting risky logging activities in and near spotted owl nesting sites that never would have been sanction by the Fish and Wildlife Service during the technical assistance era. With CAL FIRE alone and in the lead, it was clear the fox had been left guarding the northern spotted owl nest sites.

In 2012, EPIC took action. We filed a listing petition with the California Fish and Game Commission requesting that it list and protect the northern spotted owl under State law and the California Endangered Species Act. It took nearly five years, but the Fish and Game Commission did eventually list the northern spotted owl under the California Endangered Species Act, an action that was codified as of June 2017.

Today, our efforts to see the spotted owl listed and protected under State law could not have better timed. The most recent range-wide northern spotted owl demographic study released in 2016 showed continued and alarming declines in owl populations, reproduction, and survival, across all 16 long-term study areas throughout their range, including three study areas in California. According to the study, northern spotted owls are declining at a rate of nearly four percent per-year, and that rate of decline is accelerating.

With an even less-friendly Republican President and Congress giving away anything and everything it can to extractive industries and interests, and a new and much more top-heavy agency control policy being handed down by the President, Interior Secretary Zinke, and Congress in D.C., it has become clear that the only way to protect, restore and recover threatened and endangered fish and wildlife like the northern spotted owl is to focus on what can be done right here in California.

Now, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completely abandoning the spotted owl in California, our State wildlife agency, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is ready to step up and step in to ensure spotted owls are not only protected, but also hopefully conserved and recovered in the State.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will now be the defacto lead on protection, enhancement, restoration, and recovery of the spotted owl in California. The challenges to this are many, and seem quite daunting: past and ongoing habitat loss, continued expansion and competition from barred owls, increasing risk of second-hand toxicant exposure, climate change, small, and isolated and fragile remnant populations all demand a holistic view and approach to spotted owl management and conservation in California that does more than focus on the tired, old question of “to take or not to take.”

In 2018, EPIC will be pressing the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to create a Recovery Strategy for the northern spotted owl in California that addresses threats to the species and the opportunities for conservation and recovery on a holistic and state-wide programmatic basis. You can follow our spotted owl advocacy efforts at:


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