Interior requests rehearing on revived spotted owl case

By Jamila Blake

©Tom Kogut, USFS

On May 26, the U.S. Department of the Interior filed a petition for a rehearing by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia concerning a decision to allow standing for three intervening Washington state counties in a case that could challenge critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated more than 9.5 million acres as critical habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl across California, Oregon, and Washington state. Following this designation, several organizations representing the timber industry filed action against USFWS alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and challenging the Service’s economic analysis for the designation.

Three Washington state counties – Lewis, Skamania and Klickitat County – then intervened in the case with additional claims against USFWS, thus expanding the case beyond the bounds set by the original parties. The District Court, however, concluded that the original parties did not establish standing and subsequently dismissed the case.

Following the District Court’s dismissal, both the original parties and the intervening counties appealed the court’s decision. On Apr. 11, 2017, a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals unanimously found that the timber companies, and therefore counties, had standing to challenge the critical habitat designation, thus reversing the District Court’s decision and remanding the case for further proceedings on the merits of the timber industry’s claims.

The petition from Interior is not against the decision allowing timber companies to file litigation against the critical habitat designation but rather argues that the Court should have included a ruling as to whether counties separately had standing to have their unique claims heard by the court.

Pending the rehearing to address whether the counties may intervene, the case will be remanded to the District Court for a trial on the merits of the claims of the timber industry challenging the critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl.

Jamila Blake is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Government Affairs & Partnership program. Read more of Jamila's articles here.