Spotted owls and ancient forests: Court ruling could be a game changer

Juvenile spotted owl. Photo by Rayma Anne, Flickr.

With the spotted owl population in the Pacific Northwest continuing to decline, a long awaited decision on the status of the 2008 spotted owl recovery plan was welcomed last week by those of us who work on northwest forest issues.

A U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must revise a recovery plan and critical habitat designation for northern spotted owls due to the failure of the 2008 plan to pass muster on numerous scientific peer reviews. The plan was also determined to have been improperly influence by a then-Bush administration office.

Even though the plan was flawed, in August 2008, the Bush administration cited the recovery plan when it slashed the amount of forest designated as spotted owl critical habitat by about 1.6 million acres or 23 percent.

The Wilderness Society joined others in challenging the 2008 plan, stating a violation of the Endangered Species Act by severely reducing habitat protection for the owls even though experts had warned that spotted owl populations continued to decrease by four percent a year in the past 15 years.

The new ruling requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the spotted owl recovery plan within nine months and requires revision to the owl’s critical habitat on a schedule yet to be determined by the court.

Old growth forest in Oregon. Courtesy KSWild.It’s great to see that the Obama administration is doing the right thing by revisiting a plan that was muddied with political interference and faulty science. And the public will have the opportunity to have a say in the next plan with the assurance that it will be based on sound science.

The importance of the owl recovery plan goes beyond spotted owls. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management base their forest management decisions partly on such endangered species plans. How and if the few remaining ancient forests of western Washington, Oregon and northern California get protected are directly linked to the plan.

The Fish and Wildlife Service listed northern spotted owls as a threatened species in 1990 and originally protected its critical habitat in 1992. Only 15-20 percent of the original old-growth forests remain throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to providing critical habitat for spotted owls, salmon, steelhead and other species, mature and old growth forests are important sources of clean water, champions at storing carbon, and provide world class recreation opportunities.

Juvenile spotted owl. Photo by Rayma Anne, Flickr.
Old growth forest in Oregon. Courtesy KSWild.