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Standing Up for the Northern Spotted Owl

On December 20, 2012, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) notifying the agency of EPIC’s intent to sue over violations of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The violations stem from the Service’s failure to respond to a

petition submitted by EPIC in August 2012 requesting increased protections for the Northern Spotted Owl. EPIC’s petition presents substantial information that the Northern Spotted Owl’s conservation status should be changed from the present “threatened” listing to an “endangered” listing. The ESA requires that the Service respond within 90 days and determine whether to undertake a more in depth status review of the species. The federal government’s failure to meet this deadline is unjustified. EPIC intends to prosecute the agency and officials responsible for this delay and to secure a timeline from federal court requiring the agency meet statutory deadlines.

The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) has been listed under the ESA as “threatened” since 1990. By definition, a threatened species is “. . . likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” 16 U.S.C. §1531. Despite more than 20 years of protections, the Northern Spotted Owl is now closer to extinction than ever. Recently, spotted owl biologists have published a comprehensive analysis that determined the species has been declining on seven of eleven active demographic study areas at about 3% annually range-wide from 1985-2008, and that the decline is accelerating in recent years (Forsman et al. 2011). The rate of decline is steepest in northern Oregon and Washington, where spotted owl populations would decline by more than half in the next 20 years. On the remaining federal lands, population decline is accelerating and vital rates are deteriorating (Forsman et al. 2011). On non-federal lands, including areas that once provided some of the highest quality habitat for spotted owls, declines are significantly greater than on federal lands, with vast areas no longer supporting any spotted owls at all. (Forsman et al. 2011, Anthony et al. 2006). The outlook for the Northern Spotted Owl is dire based on the population trends, continued habitat loss, competition by the aggressive, invading barred owl, and the inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms, especially the lack of recovery efforts on state and private lands. EPIC’s petition requests that the federal government acknowledge the best available science, and to act accordingly by changing the status of the Northern Spotted Owl from “threatened” to “endangered” under the ESA.

After listing the owl under the ESA, the USFWS and federal land managers developed a strategy to recover the spotted owl by heavily relying on a selection of federal lands to shoulder the burden of conservation. The strategy became known as the “Northwest Forest Plan” and applied to federal lands within the range of the northern spotted owl. The plan’s centerpiece was a network of habitat islands for spotted owls, termed “late-successional reserves” (LSRs). At the time, policymakers hoped that these LSRs would provide sufficient habitat protections to prevent the extinction spotted owls, while also allowing continued logging of owl habitat outside of the LSRs. Unfortunately, the reliance on the Northwest Forest Plan meant that the conservation needs for spotted owls outside of the LSRs were largely ignored. This was especially true on state and private lands where spotted owls have been largely extirpated, with the remaining individuals in dire need of protections. The heavy reliance on fragmented reserves on federal lands without a comprehensive approach to spotted owl conservation on non-federal lands has proven to be a critical error, and one of the primary reasons why recovery has failed. Coupled with continued habitat loss is the very significant threat posed by the barred owl, which displaces spotted owls and thrives in the highly fragmented and simplified industrial forest landscapes. Without a more holistic view of species recovery and landscape-scale conservation, the Northern Spotted Owl is likely to go extinct in the foreseeable future.


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