PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) – Political appointees in the Trump administration relied on erroneous scientific evidence to justify the removal of habitat protections for the endangered northern spotted owl, US wildlife officials said Tuesday when they lifted a rule that would open up millions of acres of forest. in Oregon, Washington and California for potential logging.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service reversed a decision, made five days before Trump’s departure, to drastically cut the so-called critical spotted owl habitat. The small, reclusive bird has been dying out for decades as old-growth forests disappear.
The Associated Press received details of the actions on Tuesday before they were made public.
According to the documents, government biologists objected to the changes under Trump and warned that they would put the spotted owl on the path of extinction.
But Trump’s Home Secretary David Bernhard and former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Aurelia Skipwit, dismissed those concerns, adopting instead a plan to lift restrictions on more land than even the timber industry demanded.
In documents provided to AP, officials said Bernhardt and Skipwit had underestimated the threat of extinction and relied on “a misinterpretation of science” to make their decisions.
Bernhardt defended his solution to the issue, telling AP in an email that Congress had given the Home Secretary the authority to exclude areas from protection.
Bernhardt said the agency’s “reasonable assurance” that the owl will become extinct does not meet the requirement of a habitat protection law to avoid “extinction” of the species.
Bernhardt added that if wildlife officials want to change this standard, “they should contact Congress for a change.”
“Any future secretary can weigh the benefit factors differently, but they cannot change the law or legal standard,” Bernhardt wrote.
Officials have postponed the changes twice since President Joe Biden took office, but they never took effect. This places them among the many Trump-era policies canceled or canceled by the Home Office in recent months on issues ranging from oil and gas drilling on some state lands to protecting birds from wind farms.
Democratic MPs from Oregon, Washington and California in February called for an investigation into the removal of spotted owl protections, citing “possible scientific interference” by Trump-appointed individuals.
Wildlife advocates, government agencies and the forestry industry have argued for decades over the northern spotted owl, which is now in precipitous decline and is on the verge of extinction from Washington and parts of Oregon, according to a rule released Tuesday that replaces the Trump rule.
Federal habitat protection measures, introduced in 2012, were supposed to prevent the extinction of birds. They were also accused of slowing logging growth, which has devastated some rural communities.
Of the 9.6 million protected acres (3.9 million hectares), the federal government proposed removing about 2% of protection in August 2020.
Forestry officials said the plan was inadequate and called for more than 28% to be removed. In January, Skipwit dramatically changed her agency’s recommendation and went even further, telling Bernhardt that more than one-third of protected land, or nearly 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares), should be excluded from protection.
The land is covered in vast forested areas and includes 2 million acres (809,000 hectares) spread out in a checkerboard pattern throughout western Oregon.
Deforestation of these lands may not have killed owls right away – they live up to 20 years in separate areas that may extend to 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares), but they would eventually become extinct, said Paul Henson, Oregon wildlife chief. …
When Henson reported his concerns to his superiors last December, Skipwit dismissed them.
“You cannot remove more than a third of the habitat of endangered species and not expect them to become extinct,” Henson said in an interview. “There was not much disagreement about science. The controversy over how this risk limits the secretary’s authority to “remove habitat protection”.
The logging industry says more intensive thinning and management of protected forests is needed to prevent wildfires that devastated 560 square miles (1,450 square kilometers) of spotted owl habitat last fall. Much of this area is no longer considered viable for birds.
Timber officials also say some of the land set aside in Tuesday’s announcement is not actually home to a spotted owl, or split into plots too small to support the owl. So Trump’s lesser habitat designation was “legally and scientifically sound,” said Nick Smith, a spokesman for the American Forest Resources Council. The group represents about 100 manufacturing and logging businesses in the five western states of the United States.
“The federal government cannot designate a critical habitat if it is not the habitat of the species. This is a serious problem, ”he said.
The logging industry claims that the larger, alien striped owl poses a much greater threat than cutting down trees. Skipwit echoed this claim when she said that the most effective way to conserve spotted owls is to control their numbers.
“The main threats facing the northern spotted owl are the striped owl and devastating wildfires,” Skipwit said, adding that she used sound science to reach her conclusion. “It’s not a question of space; it’s a land management issue. “
According to Henson, striped owls in the eastern United States began to influence the spotted owl population in Washington DC and Oregon about a decade ago, when they expanded their range west and south.
Since 2009, biologists have studied the effects of striped owl removal in areas of northern California, Oregon, and Washington with the smaller spotted owl. The pilot program, which ended in August, showed that the number of spotted owls stabilized after the decline in the number of spotted owls. They continued to decline in non-resettlement areas.
The study authors warned that the results show that protecting the habitat is also critical to the spotted owl’s survival.
Rejecting Trump’s rule, federal officials said the dual threat of wildfires and striped owl competition underscores why more forests need to be protected – to provide enough habitat “redundancy” so a big fire doesn’t kill the species.
There is no large scale striped owl removal program. Wildlife officials said the best science shows protecting old forests where owls nest, sleep and hunt are critical.
Owl expert RJ Gutierrez of the University of Minnesota agreed. He said that the abandonment of forest habitat and the identification of the northern spotted owl as endangered in 1990 briefly increased its numbers before the striped owls arrived.
Until the trapped owl issues are resolved, “the entire habitat is critical,” so spotted owls can find refuge from aggressive aliens, said Gutierrez, who lives in California and has spent decades studying spotted owls on the West Coast. …
Environmental groups welcomed the move Tuesday but expressed disappointment that some 200,000 acres (about 81,000 hectares) of previously protected habitat have been removed from the new rule.
“Over the past 20 years, there has been an accelerated loss of old growth forests on public and private lands, so they continue to lose habitat,” said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. Climate change is exacerbating the danger, he said.
In December, federal authorities determined that the continued decline in the northern spotted owl population means it deserves more critical inclusion on the “endangered” list.
The agency declined to do so immediately, stating that other species had priority. This decision faces a legal challenge.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP