Fish and Wildlife Service Issues Revised Recovery Plan for Northern Spotted Owl
Posted in Conservation

On June 30, 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued a revised recovery plan (PDF) for the Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina).  Most people are familiar with the spotted owl because of the intense media attention it received during the 1990s when a fight erupted over whether to continue to allow timber harvesting in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, which conservationists argued was causing loss of critical habitat for the species.  The Service first issued a recovery plan for the spotted owl in 2008, and numerous parties challenged that plan in court.  In 2009, the Service filed for a voluntary remand of the 2008 recovery plan and critical habitat designation.  

The Revised Recovery Plan has three main provisions for achieving spotted owl recovery: protecting "high value" habitat, actively managing forests to improve forest health, and reducing competition from barred owls (Strix varia). 

When the spotted owl was first listed in 1990, the main threat to the species was the loss of habitat due to timber harvest and catastrophic fire.  As a result, logging restrictions were implemented.  But since that time, another threat, competition from barred owls, which have moved into the spotted owl's range, has grown significantly.  The Service currently views the threat from barred owls as "extremely pressing" requiring "immediate consideration."  Barred owls are "larger, more aggressive, and more adaptable than spotted owls" and are believed to "displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting and compete for food."  In addition, there have been observations of barred owls killing spotted owls and mating with the females.  Therefore, one of the main provisions of the Revised Recovery Plan is to manage the barred owl, including experimental removal, using both lethal and non-lethal methods.

The Revised Recovery Plan does not include a mapped habitat conservation network, and the Service is under court-order to issue a proposed critical habitat designated by November 15, 2011 and a final critical habitat designation by November 15, 2012. 

As reported in the New York Times, the spotted owl is "declining by an average of 3 percent per year across its range."  (New York Times, June 30, 2011 by William Yardley.)  While the Revised Recovery Plan proposes to expand protected areas for the spotted owl, scientists are uncertain whether the barred owl can be managed adequately to allow recovery of the spotted owl.  It is expected that the Revised Recovery Plan will also be the subject of future litigation.

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Nossaman’s Endangered Species Law & Policy blog focuses on news, events, and policies affecting endangered species issues in California and throughout the United States. Topics include listing and critical habitat decisions, conservation and recovery planning, inter-agency consultation, and related developments in law, policy, and science. We also inform readers about regulatory and legislative developments, as well as key court decisions.

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