Northern spotted owls are cratering on lands managed by the Humboldt Redwood Company. This is the story of how a law allows special exemptions for Big Timber and the unwillingness of federal and state agencies to hold powerful companies accountable.
Humboldt Redwood Company inherited its Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) from its predecessor, the Pacific Lumber Company. Because it has a Habitat Conservation Plan, Humboldt Redwood Company also enjoys an “incidental take statement”—a license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “take”—harm, harass, kill, or wound—a certain number of northern spotted owls a year (something that would otherwise be prohibited by the Endangered Species Act). Humboldt Redwood Company enjoys this privilege because the Habitat Conservation Plan contains commitments to manage its lands in a manner that would result in a stable population of northern spotted owls on its property.
The Habitat Conservation Plan outlined that the company would need to maintain a certain number of owl nest sites on its property (a minimum of 108, to be precise), that within these nest sites, a certain percent of those nest sites be occupied by a pair of owls (80%, measured across a five-year running average) and that of these paired owls, they achieve a certain level of reproductive success (at least 0.61 fledged young per pair for the core sites, measured across a five-year running average). How are owls doing? Badly.
Humboldt Redwood Company has missed its targets for multiple years. The company hasn’t met its owl pair target since 2015 and it hasn’t met its reproductive success target since 2012. When the company falls out of compliance with its performance targets, the Habitat Conservation Plans calls for “adaptive management” provisions to kick in, primarily the convening of a “science review panel” to recommend changes to the HCP. Due to a March 2020 letter from EPIC to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a panel was convened and recommended changes in December 2020. The panel recommended the incorporation of barred owl removal on Humboldt Redwood Company lands and additional monitoring to figure out if other causal agents (besides barred owls) could be contributing to the decline of owls. You can find their recommendations here.
It has been nearly a year and no changes have been made. What’s the hold up?