U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Issues Final Rule for Northern Spotted Owl Habitat

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) recently announced  (pdf) that it finalized its designation of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) in the Pacific Northwest.  The final rule designated 9.29 million acres of federal land and 291,750 acres of state land as critical habitat for the species.  The final rule reduced the amount of habitat by approximately 4.3 million acres from a February 2012 proposal.  The Service asserts that this designation comported with a Presidential Memorandum directing the Department of the Interior to give careful consideration to providing the maximum exclusion of areas from the final rule.

The Service's final rule represents a balancing act between conservation of the northern spotted owl and recognition of the importance of the designated lands to the Pacific Northwest's logging industry.  According to the Service, the designation will provide federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, with the information they need to ensure protection for remaining old growth forests, while implementing ecological timber harvests to improve habitat and its resilience to wildfire and insect infestations.  The Service maintained that the designation of critical habitat on state lands, primarily in Oregon, will have almost no impact on the states' management of those lands or timber harvests on those lands because a habitat designation affects only federal actions or proposed activities involving federal funding or permitting.

The American Forest Resource Council, which represents logging interests in the Pacific Northwest, said that the draft critical habitat plan ignored threats such as the non-native barred owls (Strix varia) and catastrophic wildfire on the spotted owl populations.  The barred owl is a larger and more aggressive species that migrated west in the late 1950s and have spread throughout northern spotted owl habitat.  They are displacing the spotted owl populations and compete with the spotted owl for many of the same foods.  In releasing its final rule, the Service also announced that it is working on a concurrent strategy to manage barred owl populations.  

The Service's final rule substantially increased the amount of land designated as critical habitat relative to the previous rule, issued in 2008 under the Bush administration. The critical habitat designation revised that 2008 rule in response to an order by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

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