Spotted owl: the next chapter


In June we wrote about the 20th anniversary of the spotted owl’s listing as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (see our posts here and here). The owl’s listing decimated the Northwest timber industry, and yet today, the spotted owl is actually worse off than it was 20 years ago.

What happened is a larger, more efficient species called the barred owl migrated to the Pacific Northwest from the East and is now squeezing out the spotted owl population. Both the timber industry and environmental groups agree the spotted owl is worse off, and apparently the barred owl’s arrival was a development no one anticipated.

And now, this week the spotted owl is back in the news again. A federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must redo its 2008 recovery plan for the spotted owl. But strangely, this redo is less about any failure to protect the spotted owl and more about what the judge said was influence peddling by a former deputy assistant Interior secretary, Julie MacDonald.

According to the Associated Press, the judge’s decision is the latest chapter in a series of lawsuits. The spotted owl’s listing in 1990 came after lawsuits from environmental groups, and then the 2008 spotted owl plan by the Bush administration was the result of a lawsuit from the timber industry. The judge’s decision this week was part of a lawsuit from environmental groups claiming that the Bush plan ignored the latest science and was the result of political interference from the administration.

So what does the timber industry think of this latest development in the 20-year saga over the spotted owl?

The Obama administration had asked the judge to revert back to the 1992 plan, which set aside a much larger habitat area for the owl. Instead the judge this week ruled that the 2008 habitat area set aside by the Bush administration would stand until a new plan can be written.

According to the AP, the timber industry is glad that the judge’s decision at least didn’t go too far.

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said a 2008 plan still left too much forest in critical habitat, but he was pleased that the judge left it in place until a revised designation is completed.

“It’s a lot better than going back to the 1992 critical habitat designation,” he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was apparently already expecting the judge’s ruling. The agency will release a revised spotted owl plan next week, and the plan should be finalized later this year.