USFWS finalizes increased habitat for northern spotted owls

By Laura Bies

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a critical habitat designation for northern spotted owls in Washington and Oregon. Credit: Chris McCafferty

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will increase critical habitat designated for northern spotted owls under the Endangered Species Act to approximately 9.4 million acres.

This decision, announced in a final rule last week, revokes a prior rule issued during the final days of the previous administration, which excluded 3.4 million acres from the 9.6 million acres of owl habitat designated in 2012. The new rule would instead exclude only 204,294 acres from the 2012 designation—184,133 acres of Bureau of Land Management-administered land in Oregon and about 20,000 acres of American Indian lands.

The USFWS is able to designate critical habitat if they contain features essential to the conservation of an endangered or threatened species. Once designated, those lands receive special management and protection. Under the ESA, the Secretary of the Interior has the authority to exclude any particular area from a critical habitat designation if the benefits of excluding the area outweigh the benefits of its inclusion—so long as the exclusion will not result in the species’ extinction.

Critical habitat was first designated for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) in 1992, two years after the species was listed as threatened. Nearly 7 million acres were designated, but that decision was challenged in court. In 2008, 5.3 million acres were designated, but that plan was also discarded and replaced in 2012 with a new designation of 9.6 million acres of mostly BLM and Forest Service lands, nearly all in Oregon.

According to the USFWS, northern spotted owl populations in Oregon and Washington have declined more than 50% since 1995. In December 2020, the USFWS declined to reclassify the owl from threatened to endangered, noting that higher priority listing actions under the ESA precluded the uplisting.

Upon taking office earlier this year, the Biden administration called on federal agencies to review recent regulatory decisions in conflict with current administration objectives. In a White House Fact Sheet accompanying that Executive Order, the northern spotted owl critical habitat decision was specifically identified as one warranting review.

The final rule will go into effect on Dec. 10.

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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