Lawmakers seek review of owl habitat decision

By Laura Bies

Several U.S. Senators have asked for an immediate review of the federal agency decision to drastically reduce critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. Credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS

Eight U.S. Senators are asking the Inspector General at the Department of the Interior to review the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to drastically reduce the amount of critical habitat designated for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Last month, the USFWS announced its final critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl, which would exclude 3,472,064 acres that had previously been included as part of the owl’s critical habitat. In August, the agency released a proposal to reduce the critical habitat designated for the northern spotted owl in Oregon by about 2% or 205,000 acres. The final designation excluded drastically more acres than the initial proposal, reducing the northern spotted owl’s critical habitat across Oregon, Washington and California from the 9.6 million acres designated in 2012 to about 6.1 million acres.

In their letter, the lawmakers from Oregon, Washington, California and Arizona noted that language from the final rule itself indicates that the Secretary “unilaterally overruled agency officials.” They ask that the Inspector General, who is charged with providing independent oversight and promoting excellence, integrity and accountability within Interior, immediately review the decision.

The Biden administration has called on federal agencies to review recent regulatory decisions to ensure that they are based on science. A White House Fact Sheet accompanying that Executive Order specifically lists the northern spotted owl critical habitat decision as one that the new administration will review.

In December 2020, the USFWS announced that higher priority listing actions under the ESA would prevent it from uplisting the northern spotted owl from threatened to endangered. In its 12-month finding, the agency noted that, “after a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information, we find that reclassification of the northern spotted owl from a threatened species to an endangered species is warranted but precluded by higher priority actions.”

Read TWS’ Standing Position on Threatened and Endangered Species in the U.S. and Position Statement on the U.S. Endangered Species Act

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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