Northern Spotted Owl. Credit: cramsay23/Flickr

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced a final rule as part of a comprehensive recovery plan for the northern spotted owl. The rule designates critical habitat for the species that’s based on a feedback from regional scientific experts, public comments, and land management agencies. 9.6 million acres will be set aside to help the recovery of the endangered bird. The land is primarily Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service-managed forests in Oregon, California and Washington. While the total acreage in the final rule is about 4.3 million acres lower than levels proposed in a February draft from the USFWS, it’s still double the acreage of the 2008 Bush administration critical habitat plan.

The ruling comes at a critical point for the northern spotted owl. Currently, the species is disappearing at a rate of almost three percent every year. That’s about a 40 percent reduction over the past 20 years! The reason the owls have seen such a rapid population decline is because of their sensitivity to habitat disturbances, such as the forest fragmentation and logging happening in the Pacific Northwest. Since being listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, the northern spotted owl has been at the center of northwestern U.S. timber wars. While the protection of old-growth forests may help the owl population, logging sales have declined as a result.

This rule aims to finally strike a balance that both wildlife habitat conservationists and loggers can agree on by including measures to review logging projects more closely and thinning stands to reduce wildfire risk. The timber industry is taking a close look at the rule to see if the USFWS has addressed their comments about land designation and the assessment of economic impacts. Representing the industry, American Forest Research Council President Tom Partin points out that the agency should also look at controlling the barred owl, a species that has been pushing the northern spotted owl out of its territories. American Forests also submitted comments on the draft rule this past summer and continues to support the agency’s efforts to best manage the owl’s habitat. Over the years, our Global ReLeaf program has conducted a number of restoration projects in California to restore habitat for this endangered species.

The USFWS supports the administration’s conservation strategies, which include “ecologically sustainable logging.” This practice may guard forests against wildfire and pests and strengthen the owl’s habitat. Robyn Thorson, director of the USFWS Pacific Region, also states that the agency is using the best available science to protect the owls so that partnering managers will be able to make the best decisions for their land. But even with all concerned parties at the table, coming up with the best land management solutions still poses quite a challenge.