WASHINGTON — The Trump administration Wednesday removed more than 3 million acres of Pacific Northwest land from the protected habitat of the northern spotted owl, 15 times the amount it had previously proposed opening to the timber industry.
The plan, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, grew out of a legal settlement with a lumber association that had sued the government in 2013 over 9.5 million acres that the agency designated as essential to the survival of the northern spotted owl. The federal protections restricted much of the land from timber harvesting, which companies claimed would lead to calamitous economic losses.
But rather than trim about 200,000 acres of critical habitat in Oregon, as the agency initially proposed in August, the new plan will eliminate protections from 3.4 million acres across Washington, California and Oregon. What is left will mostly be land that is protected for reasons beyond the spotted owl.
“These common-sense revisions ensure we are continuing to recover the northern spotted owl while being a good neighbor to rural communities within the critical habitat,” Aurelia Skipwith, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.
Wildlife biologists expressed shock at the decision.
“I’ve gotten several calls from wildlife biologists who are in tears who said, ‘Did you know this is happening? The bird won’t survive this,’” said Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, a conservation group that advocates on behalf of the northern spotted owl.
The decision is the latest in a series of midnight regulations the Trump administration has pushed out in recent weeks that privilege industry over protecting the environment, including shielding industry from fines and prosecution if they kill migratory birds and reducing protections for animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservation groups are almost certain to sue, and they said they would lean on House and Senate Democrats to use the Congressional Review Act — a procedural tool that allows lawmakers to nullify recently finalized regulations with a simple majority vote. But it could fall to the incoming Biden administration to do the slow work of unwinding the decision through the federal regulatory process.
Two people familiar with the spotted owl decision said the sharp increase in excluded land was done at the behest of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other senior Trump administration appointees and was not backed up by the months of biological analysis previously conducted by the agency.
The final rule does not provide new scientific analysis. Instead it says “the Secretary has exercised his discretion” to exclude millions of more acres of land from critical habitat. He concluded, it said, “based upon the best scientific and commercial data available” that the northern spotted owl would not be threatened with extinction.
Conservationists said that assertion was unsupported by the agency’s own evidence. In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the northern spotted owl should actually be reclassified, as endangered rather than threatened, but the agency said it would not take steps to do so because it had “higher priority actions.”
Now the administration is taking away critical protection, scientists say.
Northern spotted owls live in forests with dense, multilayered canopies and other features that take 150 to 200 years to develop, the Fish and Wildlife Service has said. They typically mate for life and breed relatively slowly. Threatened by logging and land conversion, they came under protection in 1990 after a fierce political fight, but their numbers have continued to decline by an average of about 4% a year, according to the service.
While the preserved habitat offers “some protection,” the service’s Oregon branch wrote on its website, “past trends suggest that much of the remaining unprotected habitat could disappear in 10 to 30 years.” To make matters worse, the barred owl from the Eastern U.S. has presented a new challenge, entering its habitat and competing for the same resources. Wildfires worsened by climate change pose an increasing threat.
The logging industry argues that the federal government has been protecting millions of acres of forests that are not occupied by the owls. In April, the American Forest Resource Council, a regional industry group that presses for logging on public lands, announced that it had reached an agreement with the service that would kick off a re-evaluation of the owl’s protected habitat. In August, after what the service called “a review of the best available scientific and commercial information,” it proposed reducing the protected area by about 205,000 acres.
The forestry group applauded the much steeper reduction announced Wednesday that opens more than 3 million acres.
This rule will better align northern spotted owl critical habitat with actual habitat, federal laws, and modern forest science at a time when unprecedented and severe wildfires threaten both owls and people from Northern California to Washington state,” Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said in a statement.
Conservationists accused the Interior Department of violating federal administrative law by not giving the public a chance to comment on the significant change from proposed to final ruling.
“How in the world have they gone from a couple hundred thousand acres to 3 million acres and it wasn’t announced?” said Kristen Boyles, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental group. “That will be a primary focus of any legal challenge, and it will be challenged. There is no question.”